The Pleasures of Metamorphosis

Title: The Pleasures of Metamorphosis: Japanese and English Fairy Tale Transformations of “The Little Mermaid”
Author: Lucy Fraser
Publication Year: 2017
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Pages: 232

This guest review is by Annaleigh Marshall.

Lucy Fraser’s The Pleasures of Metamorphosis analyzes the idea of “pleasure” through the lens of mermaid stories, all of which branch from Hans Christian Anderson’s original “The Little Mermaid.” From a girl turning into sea foam to a man trying to have sex with a mermaid and then being eaten alive, Fraser uses the transformations present in the texts to show how different societies enjoy them and thus find pleasure in the tales. Through her feminist voice and academic knowledge of Japanese culture, Fraser reevaluates interpretations of both fairy tales and Japanese society.

The Pleasures of Metamorphosis is composed of six chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. Throughout her study, Fraser argues that the pleasure found in the idea of “The Little Mermaid” is achieved through the act of transformation. She discusses not only the legitimacy of being able to transform the fairy tale but also the ways in which this is done. Using concrete examples drawn from literature and film, Fraser shows how authors play with the ideas of Anderson’s original text.

Creators from both Western and Eastern backgrounds transform the figure of the mermaid, resisting the straightforward portrayal of an innocent girl becoming a male possession and transforming her into an adult woman on a journey to find herself within a society of gender norms and restrictive societal rules. The pleasure is in the journey of the characters, authors, and readers, and it exists within a conversation of laughter and societal critique that Fraser argues can only be created by a fairy tale. Fraser maintains a strong connection to the idea of transformation throughout the book, using evidence from multiples sources and disciplines.

Fraser makes it clear that she does not wish to compare the West to the East. Instead she wants to show the reader how fairy tales serve all of humanity as a safe way to critique our societies and experiment with concepts impossible to test in reality. The West and the East are in a cycle of constantly borrowing from one another, transforming and creating something new, sometimes to the extent that the original author does not recognize their own work’s influence. Fraser argues passionately for the idea of cross-cultural transformation, using “The Little Mermaid” as a case study and prime example. She also discusses other fairy tales, such as “The Snow Queen” and “Snow White,” but her primary focus is on the story of a youthful fish-girl going through a metamorphosis to enter the patriarchal world of adults.

Fraser’s writing style is detailed and specific, and she favors a system of presenting an idea and then illustrating this idea with lengthy examples. Often her detail-orientated perspective creates page-long discussions concerning minor details of a story. These extended explorations add strength to her argument that the pleasure of reading fairy tales lies in their transformations. Fraser shows how authors from Oscar Wilde to Japanese postfeminist writer Nonaka Hiiragi take Anderson’s original tale and use their own life experiences, national history, and personal beliefs to create unique retellings of “The Little Mermaid.” Sometimes these stories can act as methods to teach children proper social behavior, while sometimes they serve as a way to question our shared cultures and beliefs.

It should be noted the writing is not as accessible as it could be, as the author frequently uses academic jargon from Gender Studies, Folklore Studies, and Cultural Studies without sufficient explanation, expecting her reader to already understand her terms. The biggest problem lies in the author’s handling of Japanese-language expressions. Since she takes the time to explain these words, she seems not to take Japanese language proficiency for granted. Her explanations of these concepts can feel rushed, however, and she also refers to historical eras in Japanese history without providing a great deal of context, which can be alienating to readers unfamiliar with Japanese language or history.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Fraser’s informative study of the movement of fairy tales across national and cultural borders. By incorporating an interdisciplinary viewpoint, she is able to depict multiple perspectives on the transformative use of Anderson’s classic story as a means of understanding both society and individuals. As Fraser argues, we are all mermaids waiting for our metamorphosis, and the pleasure we find in mermaid stories exists in the potential for transformation.

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Annaleigh Marshall is a rising senior double majoring in English and Modern Languages at George Mason University. She has previously published an essay on Hawai’ian Pidgin in the George Mason Review (link), and you can find her full professional profile on LinkedIn (link). Annaleigh is passionate about linguistics and translation, and she aims to enter the field of video game localization when she graduates.

The Book of Yōkai

the-book-of-yokai

Title: The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Author: Michael Dylan Foster
Illustrator: Shinonome Kijin (東雲 騎人)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 309

This guest review is written by Katriel Paige (@kit_flowerstorm on Twitter).

Yōkai are part of an ongoing conversation surrounding global popular culture. Even in the United States we hear about yōkai through games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, and we happily watch films from Studio Ghibli that feature wondrous and strange creatures.

Although Michael Dylan Foster acknowledges that commercial cultures factor into the continued vibrancy of yōkai lore, The Book of Yōkai does not focus on the portrayals of yōkai in contemporary popular media and fan culture. Rather, the goal of this text is to provide an overview of the folkloristics of yōkai, from how thinkers and artists have interpreted yōkai to how the mysterious entities have been created, transmitted, and continually redefined. Foster is especially interested in how yōkai enthusiasts create their own networks of practice, with popular media cultures as one node in those networks. As he writes, “For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yōkai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered kappa or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the ‘origins’ of the yōkai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is [a] purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yōkai they might encounter” (6).

Foster succeeds in this endeavor, as The Book of Yōkai is an excellent overview, especially for those new to the study of folklore. In his first chapter, “Introducing Yōkai,” the author offers a short introduction to the shifting definition of the term “folklore,” reminding readers that, like yōkai themselves, “folklore” occupies a place-in-between, where it is both traditional and modern, rural and urban. Folklore, like yōkai, can be found both in the shadows of the forest and in the light cast by our computer screens. Just as there is no single definition of “folklore,” there is no single definition of “yōkai,” and Foster’s cogent explanations of liminality and communal creation serve as an excellent introduction to the study of cryptids and the legends surrounding them.

The Book of Yōkai is divided into two sections: “Yōkai Culture” and “Yōkai Codex.” The “Yōkai Culture” section is where the reader will find Foster’s discussions of the history of yōkai, beginning with the mysterious twilight entities of the classical Heian Period (c. 794-1185) and spanning to medieval picture scrolls illustrating yōkai night parades and early modern codices classifying both natural and supernatural phenomena. The majority of this section is centered around important texts, such as the mytho-historical Kojiki and hyakumonogatari compilations of ghost stories, and influential figures, such as the artist Toriyama Sekien and the scholar Inoue Enryō.

The “Yōkai Codex” describes yōkai according to their habitats, such as the countryside, the city, and the sea. This section is similar to the indexes seen in games that involve the collection of strange creatures, such Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch. Foster’s “Yōkai Codex” also draws on and serves as a link to yōkai indexes past and present, most famously the illustrated yōkai compilations of the manga artist Mizuki Shigeru.

The writing is accessible to academics and non-academics alike, making The Book of Yōkai superb for independent scholars or a general reader with an interest in yōkai. Foster by and large avoids technical jargon, and he clarifies his treatment of Japanese words and names at the beginning of the book, which aids in cross-referencing with other sources. As a folklorist, Foster privileges the storytelling experience, using anecdotes to make the reader feel as if they are having a friendly chat with the author. Although the academic foundation of Foster’s text is solid, his colorful personal stories have the potential to resonate strongly with a non-academic audience.

The Book of Yōkai is a great resource for undergraduates, non-specialists, and other curious readers looking for a comprehensive English-language introduction to the historical complexities and artistic potential of yōkai. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions from the University of California Press. Shinonome Kijin, who has provided thirty original illustrations for the text, can be found as @ushirodo on Twitter.

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Katriel Paige is an independent scholar of yōkai as well as media cultures and folklore. They earned a MA in Intercultural Communication with International Business from the University of Surrey and a BA from the University of Delaware with a dual focus in East Asian Studies and English, and they currently work in the technology industry. They like cats, video games, and caffeine in both coffee and chocolate forms. You can find more of their work, including their essays on Japanese culture and video games, on their Patreon page.

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Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki

Haruki Murakami Bingo

The website Dissertation Reviews recently invited me to review the dissertation of Tiffany Hong, who is currently an Assistant Professor of East Asian Literature at Nazarbayev University. Hong’s dissertation, titled Teleology of the Self: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki, is an investigation of the postmodern aspects of Murakami’s storytelling framed by a discussion of the transnational publishing market that has launched the author into literary stardom.

Here is a short except from my review:

Tiffany Hong’s dissertation is primarily concerned with the developments in the narrative strategies of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling novelist Murakami Haruki, especially as these strategies respond to the relationship between the individual and the history of the Japanese state. While many scholars have examined the meaning of plot and symbolism in Murakami’s stories, Hong’s readings of four of his most well-known novels contribute a valuable perspective on the intersections between the author’s personal politics and his use of self-narrativization through diegetic and metadiegetic elements often associated with magical realism. Hong captures what makes Murakami’s novels so successful in engaging the reader by tying his work into larger discussions regarding the transformative potential of fiction.

You can read the full review on Dissertation Reviews.

( The header image is by Grant Snider, the artist of Incidental Comics. )

The State of Play

The State of Play

Title: The State of Play
Editors: Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Pages: 256

This guest review is written by John D. Moore (@johndmoore5 on Twitter).

The State of Play is a collection of sixteen diverse essays on a variety of topics related to contemporary video game culture written by game creators, journalists, and academics. The collection comes from Seven Stories Press, a company that has demonstrated a dedication to publishing interesting and new kinds of books about video games in the last few years, including anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and The State of Play editors Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson’s own Minecraft. The essays consist of some previously published material as well as pieces original to or adapted for this volume. This is not a video game culture primer; while each essay does an adequate to great job of describing the particular corner of video game culture it explores, a basic familiarity with games and the popular discourse surrounding them is necessary to keep the reader from feeling disoriented.

The book is prefaced by a short introduction written by the editors that argues for its own necessity in the current climate of video game culture. The editors propose the term “post-escapism” for our present moment, pointing to a paradigm shift for independent game production and video game criticism symbolized by – if not initiated by – the miserable advent of Gamergate. As such, it explicitly announces its progressive stance against an oppositional conservative “side.” The majority of the essays have a definite progressive political slant, dealing primarily with race, gender, and sex. Not every piece is so politically conscious, such as level designer David Johnston’s rich account of his approach to designing CounterStrike maps and the tensions between level design and real-world architecture. Curiously, the introduction does not make reference to this or other pieces that fit this loose classification, and that lack of framing is disappointing. It does provide for their place obliquely by linking progressive politics to a progressive approach in writing about games as cultural objects that matter and are subject to the same scrutiny as other media.

There are as many approaches to writing as there are contributors in this volume. anna anthropy’s essay “Love, Twine, and the End of the World” is characteristically playful and borrows the format of a choose-your-own-adventure book, sometimes even inviting the reader-player to exit the book and take action elsewhere, advancing her cause for games as a powerful medium of self-expression. In “A Game I Had to Make,” Zoe Quinn writes of her experiences surrounding the development, release, and reception of her Depression Quest in an intimate and challenging second-person perspective, stylistically reminiscent of the text of her game. Cara Ellison and Brendon Keogh share a meandering correspondence about the meaning of violence and its dominance in contemporary video games, trying on frames like colonialism. History professor William Knoblauch offers a wide-reaching analysis of apocalyptic scenarios in games from the late Cold War to the present.

In one of the book’s finest pieces, Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross describe their separate and varied stories of online harassment, putting them together to expose their common threads of misogyny that are, in turn, pervasive in mainstream video games and video game culture, dehumanizing and objectifying real women as non-player characters. Sarkeesian includes a harrowing sample of the threats she received. It is a vivid and accessible chapter that succeeds in succinctly delivering many of the main points of Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project and I’d nominate it as required reading for anyone involved in video games.

With no thematic divisions, there is no clear structural logic to the book’s presentation, though some of the juxtapositions provide provocative or synergistic effects when read together. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural: The Parameters of the Afro,” an exploration of black representation in games, pairs very neatly with Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” about playing first-person shooters where the only in-game people who look like the author are presented as enemies and the representations of his culture are often ludicrously inaccurate. Together, these issues connect to the next essay by Quinn in a way that opens up broader questions about embodied experiences. Other essays, especially toward the end of the collection, seem arranged at random.

In these pages, it is unfortunately rare to see an acknowledgement of the specific regional discourse the writers are talking about, even as Japanese companies (which are admittedly multinational, with major global presences) are routinely referenced. An exception is in one of the standout pieces of the collection, in which merritt kopas examines the intersection of sex, games, consumerism, and culture, arguing that the intertwining of these themes in mainstream game productions is a reflection of our society’s misogynistic and problematic relationship to sex. While she acknowledges that her discussion might be applicable in some areas to other cultures, she emphasizes that her focus is on her own American context. This statement stands in contrast to the introduction, which identifies the mainstream game industry as historically preoccupied with the “young, white, Western male” from its genesis. That of course applies to what would generally be termed the Western video game market since the late 1980s, but it seems to dodge the problem of other major markets, or at the very least the Japanese market. Oli Wikander, a professor of Religious Studies, offers a strong exception, examining Western theology and Gnosticism in 1990s Japanese role-playing games. It’s an excellent piece, but its position at the back of the volume seems to speak to its outsider status.

The book would have benefited from more careful editing on both macro and micro scales. There are a few more instances of awkward grammar and spelling mistakes than I’m accustomed to seeing. In addition, only a handful of the pieces cite their sources, which is disappointing. Predictably, those who cite are among the small handful of academics in the collection.

On a related note, my biggest complaint about the book is its lack of contextualization. At least three essays were originally written for their authors’ blogs, and I think it would strengthen the book to contextualize these articles as such. Short introductions preface each piece, but they mainly serve to specify the topic of the essay. This book was published in 2015, so it is mildly confusing when Ian Bogost’s piece on the fantastic stupidity of Flappy Bird and video games at large, originally posted at The Atlantic, refers to “last summer” but means the summer of 2013. The nature of blogging tends to produce writing that is very reactive to its moment and the broader online ecosystem of blogging. These repurposed bog posts are all fine pieces by themselves, but their transition between media calls for some more compensation than the book provides. Another example would be Dan Golding’s fine specimen of rhetoric “The End of Gamers,” originally a 2014 Tumblr post, in which Golding opts to not delve into the events commonly credited for spearheading Gamergate, deeming it not worthy of consideration. Given the priorities of his post, this makes sense on Tumblr. The nature of a print anthology, however, would almost certainly benefits from a stronger historicization either in the text or in footnotes, especially if it aspires to continued relevance.

While the collection’s lack of an absolute unifying coherence is arguably a weakness, it is simultaneously a strength. The diversity of content allows for a wide range of examples of different ways people are approaching video games. The collection and availability of the pieces that were originally published online in a physical book has great value, preserving them from the vicissitudes of ephemeral news cycles. To give an example, in researching this review I discovered that Shanahan’s essay has disappeared from its original home on the Internet. While it remains available elsewhere online for the time being, it would be a shame if it were ever lost to the Internet’s ever-growing cemetery of failed servers and expired domains.

The book’s inclusion of essays on so many varied subjects from so many different angles inspires an excitement concerning the existence of new possibilities and fresh approaches that even this wide-reaching collection cannot accommodate. The collection’s title, The State of Play, suggests a sort of crystallization of all the current discourse surrounding games. I would love to see something like this turn into a series, chronicling these conversations as they continue to evolve in coming years.

The State of Play is strongly recommended for any reader with an interest in the current culture of video games and how we talk about them. Each individual essay could provide, at minimum, a jumping-off point for a spirited discussion on a major topic in contemporary video game culture. Indeed, I can imagine this volume providing the backbone for a unit in a college course. To that end, it’s worth noting that Seven Stories Press offers (free examination copies of its titles to professors.

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John D. Moore is an M.A. student in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures at the University of Oregon researching Japanese anime in general and Mobile Suit Gundam in particular. He is also a filmmaker and hobbyist developer of several dozen freeware video games, including Caverns of Khron and ExpandoScape.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Title: Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
Japanese Title: 動物化するポストモダン:オタクから見た日本社会
(Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai)
Author: Azuma Hiroki (東 浩紀)
Translators: Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Pages: 200

Even though I have read Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals twice in translation (as well as once in the original Japanese) over the past two years, I will readily admit that I’ve had a difficult time trying to understand what its author is trying to say. It turns out that the key to my understanding of Otaku was Marc Steinburg’s translation of an essay called “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative” by a Japanese pop culture ethnographer named Ōtsuka Eiji. Reading this essay was something of an extended eureka moment for me, as Azuma has clearly created his model of narrative consumption as a response to Ōtsuka’s own model.

Ōtsuka’s “World and Variation,” originally published in 1989, is ostensibly about Bikkuriman Chocolates, or, more specifically, about the trading cards packaged with the chocolates. It was because of the trading cards that the chocolates were such a phenomenal hit with children around the time that Ōtsuka was writing, even though the character “Bikkuriman” had no television or manga tie-in products. The secret to Bikkuriman’s success was that, on the back of each trading card, there was a short paragraph of information about the character depicted on the front. If a child collected enough cards, he would gradually be able to piece together a larger story and gain a broader perspective on the Bikkuriman universe.

Out of many small narratives, then, children were able to create a grand narrative. The point of Ōtsuka’s discussion of Bikkuriman Chocolates is that “child consumers were attracted by this grand narrative, and tried to gain further access to it through the continued purchase of chocolates.” In other words, “what is consumed first and foremost, and that which first gives these individual commodities their very value, is the grand narrative or order that they hold in partial form and as their background.” The kids who bought the Bikkuriman Chocolates didn’t care about so much about each individual card as they did about the larger story, the mythology, and the worldview – what Ōtsuka calls the “grand narrative.” Ōtsuka argues that the consumption of anime functions in much the same way. Each episode in the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam, for example, is a small narrative. The story of each individual protagonist (such as Char or Amuro) that plays out across the episodes is a small narrative as well. The diagrams and mechanical specs included in many of the toy models of the robots may also be considered small narratives. As these small narratives are accumulated, however, they begin to form the contours of an entire world. Ōtsuka argues that it is this grand narrative that makes long-running series such as Gundam (and, I would add, series such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) so popular – and marketable.

According to Ōtsuka’s model of narrative consumption, then, small narratives, while pleasing in and of themselves, also form pieces of a larger narrative. Ōtsuka argues that, while “the general viewing audience” will only follow one strand of small narratives, what characterizes otaku is their interest in the grand narrative. Otaku are characterized by their interest in gathering bits of information “hidden in the background,” putting these bits of information together, and creating their own small narratives based on their understanding of the grand narrative. Such a model of narrative consumption goes a long way towards explaining fan-made narrative products such as fan fiction and dōjinshi, since “if, at the end of the accumulated consumption of small narratives, consumers get their hands on the grand narrative […] they will then be able to freely produce their own small narratives with their own hands.” Therefore, otaku are otaku because they are invested in narrative consumption and reproduction at the level of the grand narrative.

In Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Azuma Hiroki proposes a different model of narrative consumption. The Japanese title of Azuma’s cultural study, Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai, is revealing. The first word of this title refers to the concept of “animalization” proposed by Alexandre Kojève in The Roots of Postmodern Politics. This animalization involves the degradation of humans (independent subjects capable of reasoning, directed action, and compassion) into animals (mindless consumers who act on impulses such as hunger and the drive for greater comfort). It is Azuma’s thesis that otaku and, by extension, the society that has spawned them are becoming increasingly animalized. Azuma describes the narrative and cultural consciousness characteristic of otaku through what he calls the database model of narrative consumption.

This database model stands in direct contrast to the model proposed by Ōtuska (which he refers to as the “tree model” in his monograph Monogatari shōhiron). To give another example of how Ōtsuka’s model interprets otaku narrative consumption, the character Ayanami Rei of Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose individual story is merely a part of the larger story, is adored by otaku because, for them, she represents the tragedy, epic scale, and political allusiveness of the entire television/film series. Ayanami Rei is not just a girl in a battle uniform, then; she is Neon Genesis Evangelion itself. To “consume” her is to emotionally insert oneself into the apocalyptic, man-versus-god atmosphere of the larger narrative.

Azuma tweaks this model for understanding symbols and narrative in his database model. While Ōtsuka argues that the grand narratives of shows like Evangelion are given weight by their relevance to real-world grand narratives (such as nation and history), Azuma believes otaku narratives are almost completely removed from those of the real world. In the opening chapter of Otaku, he states, “In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background.” Thus, although an otaku might be familiar with Ayanami Rei’s age and bust size, be able to quote her dialog, and expound on the quality of various plastic models made in her likeness, he is not invested any larger worldview or grand narratives that may be encompassed by Neon Genesis Evangelion. Instead, the otaku mines the series for information to plug into a mental database that also contains information on similar shows. Because of the absence of the emotional pull of grand narratives, the otaku can substitute one element of his database for another. The light blue hair of a young female character such as Hoshino Ruri from Martian Successor Nadesico or Tsukishima Ruriko from Droplet effectively is the light blue hair of Ayanami Rei. For otaku, grand narratives are nothing compared to the “animalistic” appeal of a character’s cute face or slender waist. Tropes can therefore be transferred from one story and character to another, as can an otaku’s emotional investment.

Azuma claims that, “Compared with the 1980s otaku [on whom Ōtsuka bases his model], those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated.” The otaku of the 1990s thus only consumed fragments, or small narratives. These fragments, which could comfortably fit within the small square boxes of a database, could then be easily cross-referenced with other fragments. Because of the ease of referencing these fragments, distinctions between an original and its copies (either through officially licensed spin-off works or fan works) disintegrated. According to Azuma, there was no longer any need to refer these fragments back to the grand narratives of either the original work or the real world. An otaku could float unanchored through the database he created through his consumption of undifferentiated narratives. And this, argues Azuma, is how the cultural phenomenon of moe was born. For otaku, stories don’t matter – it’s all about the cute girls.

In the first section of Otaku, Azuma explains his model. In the second section, he provides examples of how it works. During these two sections, Azuma’s writing is clear and easy to understand. The third and final section of the book, however, is a bit of a mess. In this section, Azuma gets really excited about the internet in a manner that now seems somewhat naïve; but, in Azuma’s defense, he was writing more than ten years ago. Despite the dated feel of this last section, however, Azuma’s ideas are accessible and make a great deal of sense, even to a reader with no prior experience in postmodern philosophy.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts

Title: A Billion Wicked Thoughts:
What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire

Authors: Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Dutton Adult
Pages: 416

I recently purchased and read through Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent study Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, so Amazon recommended that I try A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire. I was intrigued by the debate in the comments on the reader reviews. Apparently, some people loved this book – but the majority hated it and accused its two authors, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, of sensationalism and poorly conducted research. The topic of the book (sexualized texts and gendered patterns of desire) is somewhat close to my own research, so I decided to give it a shot. Even if the negative criticism were indeed warranted, I figured that it might still be interesting.

To make a very long story very short, I was wrong. A Billion Wicked Thoughts has no redeeming qualities and is not valuable to a real academic project in any way – except perhaps as a telling example of blatant sexual essentialism passed off as science. The project is indeed guilty of sensationalism, and it’s more than a bit condescending to its readers. However, as Rita Felski entreats feminist critics in the opening pages of her introduction to Literature after Feminism, “we do better to deal with the substance of what is actually being said, rather than trying to impugn the desires or motives of the person who is saying it. To accuse someone of sexism or misogyny is not to begin a dialog but to end one.” Therefore, I’d like to make full use of the substance of what is actually being said in A Billion Wicked Thoughts. This review is thus filled with quotes, which are documented not by page numbers but by the Kindle’s system of “positions.” I should also mention that the Kindle edition of this book contains no signals for identifying endnotes within the text itself (which is highly unusual; every other Kindle edition I have encountered thus far has had no problem with hyperlinked notes). Although I was aware of the existence of an endnote section while I was reading, the Kindle formatting made it extremely difficult to consult these notes. This has most undoubtedly influenced my perception of the validity of many of the statements made by the text, but I believe there are much deeper problems than those solved by careful endnotes, and I will address the issue of references later.

Red flags started springing up in my mind even before the text proper during Catherine Salmon’s introduction. She states, for example, that “there is a real advantage in finding other methods [than accredited scientific research] of insight into our desire – unobtrusive measures that don’t require people to actively participate in the process of data collection. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam study digital footprints on the Internet to illuminate our understanding of the stark differences between the desires of males and females” (80-83). The first red flag is planted firmly in the soil of “the stark differences between the desires of males and females,” a statement that betrays non-scientific sexual essentialism at its worst. The second red flag marks the questionably ethical territory of “unobtrusive measures that don’t require people to actively participate in the process of data collection.” In the very title of the book, the authors refer to the internet as “the world’s largest experiment;” however, unlike more conventional experiments, the consent of the participants is apparently not strictly mandatory. I am not a social scientist, but I’m pretty sure that this sort of attitude is frowned upon by most researchers. In any case, Salmon moves on to a short sketch of the principles of evolutionary psychology and what she calls “an adaptionist approach to human sexual behavior” (89). Her failure to problematize this approach or concede any sort of social and cultural influence on human sexual behavior raised a third red flag for me. An introduction is merely an introduction, however, and blithely non-footnoted introductions are a dime a dozen. Surely the actual authors would be a bit more careful in their assumptions and broad generalizations.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Instead of beginning their study with an introduction of the academic and clinical debates on how biology and society each influence sexual behavior and an explanation of how their research and research methods will contribute to this debate, the authors succumb to brute sensationalism. “In the pages that follow,” they promise, “you’ll learn the truth about what men and women secretly desire – and why” (145). They thus tempt the reader with “the truth” and “secret desires” in a tone far more reminiscent of snake oil salesmen than scientists. They then attempt to lure the reader into the doorway of their circus tent by offering membership to a select club of brave souls who can handle the truth: “We need to warn you up front. In the pages that follow, you’re going to peer into other people’s minds without filters or cushions. The sexual brain is guaranteed to upset the politically correct, the socially conservative, and just about everyone in between” (151-53). Finally, instead of acknowledging the existence of the overwhelming amount of research on human sexuality in the past three decades, they set themselves up as solitary crusaders fighting The Man in order to impart their revolutionary findings: “Many social institutions don’t want sex to be in studies, either. Federal funding agencies, advocacy groups, ethics review boards, even fellow scientists all bring powerful social politics to bear on those researchers brave enough to investigate human desire” (208-10). I am not a social scientist, so perhaps I’m not the best arbiter of the veracity of these statements, but I suspect that the hundreds of studies listed in the dozens of pages of the “References” section at the end of the book might tell a different story regarding the funding and institutional encouragement of studies on sexual neurology and psychology.

Well, okay. So the introduction to A Billion Wicked Thoughts is a bit silly. If the authors are trying to entice the general public to actually read their groundbreaking research, then perhaps such inanities can be forgiven. What, then, is the book actually about? What have the authors discovered during their research on the internet that is so new and fresh and visionary? In an early summary of their findings, the authors state, “On the web, men prefer images. Women prefer stories. Men prefer graphic sex. Women prefer relationships and romance. This is also reflected in the divergent responses of men and women when asked what sexual activities they perform on the internet” (439-41). This seems, at first, to be common sense; it’s what I learned as a teenager by reading the 500-words-or-less articles in Cosmopolitan magazine. I have a few questions about that last sentence, though. What sort of sample of “men and women” are we talking about? Did the authors conduct a survey? What do they mean by “sexual activities performed on the internet,” exactly? Perhaps I’m not supposed to ask questions like these, though, because they’re never addressed or answered.

In any case, let’s move on to the specifics. Essentially, the male sexual brain functions like Elmer Fudd:

Solitary, quick to arose, goal-targeted, driven to hunt. . . and a little foolish. In other words, the male brain’s desire software is like Elmer Fudd. Fudd, the comic foil of Bugs Bunny in the Looney Tunes cartoons, is always on the hunt for a specific target: rabbits. Or as Fudd says it, wabbits. Fudd is a solitary hunter who likes to work alone. Fudd is trigger happy. The moment he sees a wabbit – or thinks he sees a wabbit – he squeezes the trigger and fires. Fudd is easily fooled by ducks dressed up as rabbits and other tricks played on him by Bugs Bunny. But even when Fudd shoots his gun at a phony rabbit, he never gets discouraged. He reloads and gets back out there. (1061-66)

The female sexual brain, on the other hand, functions like Agatha Christie’s elderly spinster detective Miss Marple:

A female brain [is] equipped with the most sophisticated neural software on Earth. A system designed to uncover, scrutinize, and evaluate a dazzling range of informative clues. We’ve dubbed the female neural system the Miss Marple Detective Agency. (1223-24)

In women, then, “the Detective Agency always craves information to make good long-term investment decisions – and the more information, the better” (1931-32), while men are all sex all the time. Forgive my French, but this sounds like the same stupid shit pop journalists and relationship manuals (such as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus – my, that sounds like a familiar analogy) have been touting for decades. Women are different from men? Women are apples, and men are…hamburgers? Okay, I get it, but I thought this book was supposed to tell me something I’d never heard before.

If I have allowed my frustration to bleed through into the previous paragraph, it’s because I’m extraordinarily frustrated with A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Some people hold the male/female dichotomy to be self-evident, but humanities scholars and scientists of both the hard and social varieties have been successfully challenging it for a long, long time. In their conclusion, even Ogas and Gaddam acknowledge that their findings demonstrate an extraordinary degree of sexual fluidity. One of their main arguments (and perhaps their main organizational principle) throughout the book is that individuals pick up and are aroused by different sexual cues, and these “cues can flip, change, or transform, resulting in endless variations of sexual identity that defy easy labeling” (3685). Furthermore, “sometimes female software ends up with male components, sometimes male software gets female components” (3701-02). In a leap of logic contrary to evidence, however, the authors persist in their Fudd/Marple model, asserting that “the very gulf that separates a woman’s brain from a man’s brain is responsible for all the wondrous diversity of human sexuality” (3703-04). Perhaps I’m being a bit obtuse, but throughout the book I had difficulty understanding the paradox of how hard biological sexual fluidity is somehow a result of hard biological sexual difference.

It doesn’t help that the authors consistently fail to cite their sources and methods. Here again the notation issues of Kindle edition come into play, but I feel that the authors could have done a better job of integrating information theoretically contained in the endnotes into the main body of the text. For example, in their chapter on romance novels, Ogas and Saddam claim that “we analyzed the text of more than ten thousand romance novels published from 1983 to 2008 to determine the most common descriptions of the hero’s physical appearance” (2566-67). Ten thousand romance novels is a lot of romance novels. Even if it doesn’t take an extraordinary amount of time to read a romance novel, ten thousand of them is still a lot. What texts were analyzed? What were the criteria for selection? How did the authors “read” them? Were there research assistants involved? Were there computers involved? What was the process of analysis? How was the numerical data calculated? None of these basic methodological issues were even hinted at in the main body of the text. They may or may not have been addressed in the endnotes (as I mentioned previously, the Kindle edition made it very difficult to actually check the endnotes, as they were in no way hyperlinked or otherwise attached to the main text), but by all rights the reader should not have to go chasing endnotes in order to clarify the fundamental nature of the research methods.

Moreover, responsible writers would have provided immediate context and justification for any broad, sweeping statements about sexual difference that, in the absence of any citation of scientific studies providing corroboration, simply come off as sexist. Such statements include: “In fact, many women report lubrication and even orgasm during unwanted and coercive sex: a woman’s body responds, even as her mind rebels. In contrast, if a man is erect, you can make a very reasonable guess about what’s going on in his mind” (1183-84); “Women masturbate less, fantasize about sex less frequently, and initiate sex less often than men. Women report low sexual desire much more often than men” (1206-8); “Women have superior autobiographical memory compared to men, they remember more details and their narratives of recollection are longer. Women recall their first life event more quickly, recall more life events, date life events more accurately, and recall earlier events than men” (1271-73).

Some of the statements made by the authors, however, cannot be proven no matter what sources might be cited. “On Ugly Betty, gay men would much prefer to invite Betty’s straight boss Daniel Meade into their bedroom than fashion reporter Suzuki St. Pierre” (2102-3) and “Harry Potter, Twilight, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer boast the greatest number of slash stories” (3562) are two good examples. Other non-attributed assumptions are, quite frankly, offensive, such as “[a certain sample of self-identified gay men] needed to get to know the personality of a man before hooking up with him, they were not especially attracted to straight men, they believed that whether someone was a bottom or a top was entirely socially determined, and they questioned the very existence of the top/bottom binary – even though they themselves were quite clearly power bottoms” (2402-6). It doesn’t matter what the men themselves say if they are “quite clearly” power bottoms, I suppose.

When the authors do cite their sources, said sources tend not to be of the most academic and reputable variety. These sources include Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, authors of Beyond Heaving Busoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels (1454-56), EroRom author Angela Knight in her book Passionate Ink: A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance (1564-66), fashion blogger Teresa McGurk (2608), Jeff Gordinier, the editor at large at Details magazine (3432), and Shannon, a twenty-three-year-old woman on her online journal (2732). Granted, the authors do mention Janice Radway two or three times, but they fail to touch on the various controversies among feminist critics in the wake of Reading the Romance. Furthermore, citing Radway does not make up for the fact that often, the “experts” quoted by Ogas and Saddam are not even named: “Most women cite a desire to feel safe as a reason for their preference for tall men. ‘It makes me feel small and secure; which is a lovely feeling,’ says one woman” (2605-6). This “one woman,” whether the same woman or a series of women, is cited again and again (examples can be found at 2594, 2603, 2622 – and then I stopped keeping track). Random men are cited as well, such as one man on reddit (2900) and one thirty-year-old gay man (3709-10). There’s even some guy named Rocco: “‘Black guys are hot,’ explains Rocco” (2836). Who is Rocco? I have no idea. Ogas and Saddam offer absolutely no explanation concerning where these people are coming from. Are they people who left random comments on random websites, or did the authors conduct some sort of survey or series of interviews? Perhaps the endnotes might help clarify, but again, I don’t think such vital information should be tucked away in the endnotes.

Essentially, what I’m trying to argue is that Ogas and Saddam, despite being accredited cognitive neuroscientists, have written a book filled with sexist nonsense based on research that does not bother to explain its methods or sources. Their arguments are founded on the flimsiest of facts and analysis, and it shows. I could point out their misuse of primate and rodent neurology and behavioral psychology, or I could point out their self-contradictory and condescending attitude towards the female readers and writers they have studied, for example. I am neither a biologist nor an anthropologist, however, so I’d like to restrict my own case study of their work to a subject I know a bit about – anime.

Ogas and Saddam introduce anime by stating, “With the advent of the Internet, Japanese anime quickly spread throughout the world. Japanese anime (sometimes known as hentai) is the most searched for type of erotic animation or erotic art on search engines in the United States, Russia, France, Thailand, Brazil, and Australia, suggesting that it is highly effective in exploiting men’s visual cues (803-5).” Apparently, all anime is hentai. I suppose someone should really inform director Miyazaki Hayao, as well as the Academy Award committee that gave him an Oscar from the family film Spirited Away back in 2001. Maybe I’m being snarky for no reason, though; perhaps the previous sentence was simply poorly constructed and the authors didn’t mean to suggest that “anime” is synonymous with “hentai.” Let’s try again: “It’s also worth noting that Japanese animation frequently contains men with gargantuan penises, sometimes larger than a girl’s arm” (810-11). Frequently? That’s strange, because I have yet to see a gargantuan penis in super-popular, long-running shows such as Doraemon and Sazae-san and Pokémon. Perhaps I’m simply not looking hard enough.

However, these statements were drawn from the beginning of the book. Certainly the authors cannot continue to operate under the obviously mistaken assumption that all (or even most) of Japanese animation is pornographic. Hopefully, by the conclusion of their study, Ogas and Saddam will have corrected themselves: “But male desire is also powerful, intense, urgent. It can take a man to strange, new places and open up new doorways of experience. It’s never tied down, never sedated, and can incite a man to wander great distances in search of fortune and adventure. It drives dazzling visual creativity, such as Japanese anime” (3281-84). Or maybe not. As an added bonus, the authors are now insinuating that anime is an entirely male-dominated enterprise (hint: it’s not). Ogas and Saddam make similarly ridiculous statements about Japan, such as “it is widely understood in Japanese society that women enjoy gay romances” (3579-80) and “the most popular comic books (known as manga) among Japanese girls feature handsome, slightly feminine heterosexual boys who have sex with one another” (3581-82). Right. And were you aware that, in America, it is widely known that comics popular with female readers, such as X-Men and Iron Man, are about handsome, slightly feminine heterosexual boys who have sex with one another? I bet you didn’t know that. I bet you didn’t know that because it’s not true.

Finally, to add insult to injury, A Billion Wicked Thoughts is peppered with some truly stupid statements (and by “stupid,” I mean senseless, tactless, and apropos of nothing). Here is one: “The romance novel has long been described as ‘pornography for women.’ This is a somewhat unfair and misleading comparison. After all, would we characterize gang bang porn as ‘romance for men’?” (1418-19). Here is another: “Sex is the end of the journey, rather than the journey itself. PornHub is a collection of sexual moments, devoid of romance. On the other hand, men can fall head-over-heels in swooning, romantic love, like Tom Cruise’s frenetic display of passion on Oprah’s couch” (2038-39). Here is yet another: “A compilation [of cum shots] is basically a staccato succession of similar cues. It’s like getting the Uno’s appetizer sampler. You get a collection of highly cravable bite-sized morsels you can pop into your mouth, one after the other: potato skins, nachos, chicken fingers, onion rings, chicken wings” (3512-14). Comparing cum shots to salty appetizers? Really?

I hope that such sad attempts to add color to the writing don’t give the reader of this review the impression that A Billion Wicked Thoughts is in any way interesting or a pleasure to read. It’s actually quite monotonous and repetitive. The chapters in the second half of the book follow a paint-by-numbers pattern of sexist generalizations followed by a walk-through of porn sites dedicated to a particular kink followed by numerical data followed by graphs followed by soft science interspersed with randomly placed off-topic remarks followed by more sexist generalizations. Really, there’s nothing to see here. It’s a bad book filled with bad writing that I can’t imagine being useful to anyone. It has nothing to recommend it. It boggles my mind how it got published in the first place, seeing as how an actual editor had to sit down and actually read it. What I find even more remarkable is that real scientists, such as Donald Symons, David M. Buss, Roy Baumeister, Simon LeVay, and Paul Vasey, wrote nice things about it and allowed their comments to be published as promotional material. It is my sincere hope that this book will quietly fade away into obscurity, the sooner the better.

I understand that certain people might be curious about this book, as it is the final product of the infamous SurveyFail 2009 incident and the resulting debates over the ethics of online ethnography. If you are one of these people, let me promise you that this book isn’t worth the emotional investment. From what I have been able to piece together, the authors and their supporters have been extraordinarily disrespectful to the people who formed the initial core focus of the project. If you are upset about this, please don’t justify the indignity with a response – or by spending any money. As I hope I have successfully argued in this review, A Billion Wicked Thoughts is simply not worth your – or anyone’s – time.

The Other Women’s Lib

Title: The Other Women’s Lib: Gender and Body in Japanese Women’s Fiction
Author: Julia C. Bullock
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: University of Hawai’i Press
Pages: 200

Sometimes I will hear someone describe an academic text with disdain, calling it “accessible” as if that were a terrible, embarrassing thing. This bothers me. Psychoanalytical, literary, political, and cultural theory are wonderful tools, but the texts from which this theory is drawn are often very difficult to read. Furthermore, academia has reached a point in its cycle of production at which it is simply not enough to have read the original sources of theory; one must also read all of the lenses through which they have been interpreted over the past thirty to forty years. As a result, even one strain of theoretical thought is often difficult to master. And yet, some scholars expect their readers to know everything about the specific theory that informs their work. They thus go about using specialist terms without explanation, throwing theorists’ names around metonymically, and not bothering to orient their reader to their underlying system of assumptions. I believe this is unreasonable, if only because some of us have not been alive for the requisite number of years it takes to read and study all the books (if such a thing is even possible).

I don’t mean to suggest that all academics write like this. In fact, I believe most professors are far more interested in communicating ideas than they are in hoarding them within the confines of the ivory tower. Julia Bullock’s literary study The Other Women’s Lib is a perfect example, I think, of how an “accessible” academic text can convey both the pleasures of the authors whose works are examined and the pleasures of the methods used to examine them.

In The Other Women’s Lib, Professor Bullock handles three postwar writers: Kōno Taeko, Takahashi Takako, and Kurahashi Yumiko. Each of these three writers is fairly canonized in the tradition of Japanese literary studies, with numerous dissertations and anthologized essays celebrating their work. Bullock’s book-length study is important because it has the courage to focus on these three female writers alone without feeling the need to include chapters on some of the more prominent male figures of the Japanese literary world, thus carrying on the torch sparked by classics like Victoria Vernon’s Daughters of the Moon and the fantastic essay collection The Woman’s Hand.

Instead of dividing the book into three sections focusing on each of the three authors, Bullock has categorized her chapters thematically. Each of these five chapters deals with an important issue relevant to the work of all of the authors. For example, how were they received by the literary establishment? How did they incorporate the concept of the male gaze into their writing? Do their stories reflect an ingrained misogyny, or do they instead reproduce misogyny in order to challenge it? How do these authors narrate the female body? How do they characterize the relationships between women? Throughout these chapters, Bullock draws on the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault (the internalized gaze), Susan Gubar (feminist misogyny), and Luce Irigaray (the creation of discursive sexual difference). Bullock does not merely throw about concepts like panopticism, however; she explains her terms and their contexts and fleshes them out with well-chosen quotes before explaining exactly how they apply to the stories and novels she analyzes.

The first chapter of the book, “Party Crashers and Poison Pens,” places these themes and writers into their geographical and historical context, namely, Japan in the sixties and seventies. These decades were an era of high economic growth and the cradle of gender ideologies that many people have now come to regard as “traditional;” i.e., the man goes out into the world and fights the good fight as a corporate warrior, while the woman stays at home and takes care of the children. The chapter introduces these ideologies and their political implications, explains their social and economic context, and then touches on the male-dominated literary scene before then demonstrating how certain proto-feminist women writers crashed the party with dark, violent, and absurdist fiction. Bullock describes the literature that emerged during this period as “the other women’s lib,” a nuanced and intensely critical evaluation of contemporary gender roles and economic ideologies. Even if a reader has no interest in the particular writers in question, this chapter alone is worth reading for its excellent summary of an exciting literary movement and the dynamic and explosive time period that served as its background.

That being said, Kōno, Takahashi, and Kurahashi are all fantastic writers who have been well served by their English translations, which appear in collections like Toddler-Hunting, Lonely Woman, and The Woman with the Flying Head. Their North American equivalents would be authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. In other words, they are authors who are worth reading and worth reading about. It is my hope that The Other Women’s Lib will encourage the popularity of these three Japanese authors in English-speaking teaching and translation communities. If nothing else, it is extraordinarily satisfying for me to put Professor Bullock’s book on my shelf next to all of the literary studies of Kyōka, Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Murakami.

To anyone interested in the topic of gender in Japanese literature, I might also recommend the title Girl Reading Girl in Japan, which was edited by Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley and published in late 2010 by Routledge. Unlike Bad Girls of Japan, Girl Reading Girl in Japan is intended for a more specialist audience, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out, especially for someone interested in the burgeoning field of shōjo studies. The book is a collection of conference papers, with each paper being about ten to twelve pages of essay and another one or two pages of footnotes. The ten conference papers are accompanied by an editors’ introduction, a genealogical essay introducing three major Japanese players in the field of shōjo studies (Honda Masuko, Yagawa Sumiko, and Kawasaki Kenko), and then two translated essays. Taken together, these collected writings demonstrate what has happened in Western scholarship relating to shōjo in the past ten years and provide an excellent introduction to the body of Japanese scholarship. Girl Reading Girl in Japan brings the topics discussed in The Other Women’s Lib into the present day through essays on subjects ranging from Murakami Haruki to Kanehara Hitomi to the portrayal of rape in Harry Potter dōjinshi. The essays are intelligent, the topics are fun, and the book is very easy to browse through. I only wish Routledge would release it in paperback…