Beyond Damsels & Villains in A Tale of Two Rulers

A Tale of Two Rulers Zelda Portrait by Lorraine Schleter

I published my third piece on FemHype, which remains one of my favorite gaming websites. This essay is about A Tale of Two Rulers, a Legend of Zelda fan comic that views the themes of the games through the lens of intersectional feminism. The comic features gorgeous art and an engaging story, and it’s one of my favorite things to ever appear on the internet. Please check it out!

Here’s a short excerpt from my essay:

A Tale of Two Rulers is deeply intertwined with the broader discussions of representation in video games that are currently occurring in lady-centric fandom communities. As these fans pose critical questions concerning their continued marginalization in mainstream gaming cultures, they also produce compelling reconfigurations of sexist narratives and tropes, transforming the games they love into stories that celebrate positive representations of diversity.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Shinto and Environmentalism in The Legend of Zelda

Koroks from The Wind Waker

I recently published another essay on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. This one is about how Shinto, as an influence on video game creators, is complicated, nuanced, and mixed with other elements of Japanese cultural history. I demonstrate that Shinto is somewhat nebulous as a creative influence, and I argue that grassroots movements and an international interest in the themes and tropes of high fantasy are equally influential in the development of Japanese games in the 1980s.

Here’s a short excerpt:

What are “the teachings of Shintoism,” exactly? And what do they have to do with Japanese video games? I’d like to demonstrate that Shinto—as a broad amalgamation of local folk religions in Japan—is not particularly well-defined as a cultural influence on video games. Moreover, Shinto is only one of the contributing factors in Japanese attitudes regarding the environment.

Although it would certainly be interesting and productive to identify the specifically Shinto elements in The Legend of Zelda series, I think it also makes sense to place the games within the context of ecological conservation movements in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, it’s worthwhile to consider the more universal elements of international fantasy storytelling that appealed to people in the nascent console gaming industry.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Yoshi’s Woolly World & Mellow Mode

Yoshi's Woolly World Bowser Fight

I have fantastic news! An essay I wrote on accessibility and gaming has been published on FemHype, one of my favorite gaming websites. I argue that different people play games for different reasons and that the customization of difficulty settings both accommodates a diversity of players and broadens the potential of the game itself.

Here’s a short excerpt:

As video games continue to evolve into ever more gorgeous works of visually stunning storytelling, it’s only natural that they have begun to attract larger and more diverse audiences. These players will have different skill sets and expectations, and many of them may come to gaming with goals that have nothing to do with high scores or kill counts.

This is why I believe that built-in gameplay features such as the Mellow Mode in Yoshi’s Woolly World are important in making games accessible to people who fall outside of the narrow parameters that currently define many industry standards regarding who gamers are and what they want from the experience of gaming.

You can read the full article on FemHype.

Linkle, the Female Gaze, and the Sailor Moon Paradox

Or, is Linkle’s character design sexist garbage?

My answer: NOT NECESSARILY.

Linkle is a female version of Link, the green-clad hero of The Legend of Zelda video game franchise. The character Linkle was formulated for possible inclusion in the 2014 Wii U title Hyrule Warriors, an action game in the Dynasty Warriors vein developed by Koei Tecmo in collaboration with Nintendo. In the Nintendo Direct video message broadcast on November 12, it was announced that Linkle would be a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends, a port of the game for the Nintendo 3DS.

The internet exploded, with some fans going wild with glee and other fans becoming consumed with righteous feminist anger.

Before anything, let’s look at the design itself.

HW Legends Linkle in Famitsu

The design element that stands out the most is the exposed flesh between Linkle’s boots and her black shorts. In anime-speak, this design element is known as zettai ryōiki, or “absolute territory.” I don’t want to get into the history and context of this expression here, but basically, the bit of naked skin between the top of a female character’s leggings and the bottom of her skirt is the area where all the moé feels are.

If you’re a queer lady or a straight dude, you’ll probably understand this already, but I want to make the sexualized appeal of this design element absolutely clear. The zettai ryōiki suggests the coveted thigh gap (the desire for which transcends culture) even if the character is wearing a skirt or tunic. The insides of a woman’s upper thighs are soft and smooth and heavenly; and, although this area of the body is generally hidden, the zettai ryōiki exposes it to the viewer, who can run their eyes (and imagined hands) up the curves of the character’s legs and into the promised land between them.

So, is Linkle’s design sexualized?

OH MY GOODNESS YES.

In addition, feminist critics have decried how Linkle seems subordinate to the male Link and merely tacked onto a spinoff of a spinoff game in order to reinforce the idea that the star of the really important games will always be male. These are the sort of comments that have been going around:

“Are we really this satisfied with crumbs, people? Is the bar that low?”
I Love Linkle. But Linkle Is Not Enough.
(by Maddy Meyers, via The Mary Sue)

“The message was clear: Shut the fuck up and be happy with what little you get.”
The Legend of F. Scott: A Response to the Response to the Response to Linkle
(by Carolyn Petit, via Tumblr)

Regardless, a number of female artists and Zelda fans have been celebrating Linkle’s inclusion as a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends with enthusiastic joy. What’s going on here?

I’m going to argue that this is the female gaze at work.

The dreaded “male gaze” as classically formulated casts men as subjects. This means male characters have agency and interiority, and female characters are just there to serve the needs of the male characters and male viewers. In contrast, the female gaze treats female characters as subjects, even in media intentionally (or unintentionally) designed to cater to a male audience.

Part of the female gaze lies in objectifying male characters, which is not unproblematic but perfectly natural – and one might even say that it’s borderline radical in its resistance against mainstream configurations of gender. Many female-identified gamers have crushes on Link, who embodies an attractive “soft” masculinity and respects and cares for the women in his many lives. In addition, many gamers of all genders have not-so-secret crushes on the villainous Ganondorf, whose design in Ocarina of Time features its own zettai ryōiki.

That being said, the main function of the female gaze is to perceive female characters as self-defined subjects and not merely as sexualized objects of male desire. This brings me to something I call “the Sailor Moon paradox.”

When Sailor Moon first aired in the 1990s, feminist media critics hated it, saying that its appeal revolved entirely around the oversexualized bodies of teenage girls. This is not wrong, as Sailor Moon had and still has legions of older straight male fans who create and consume porn based on the characters.

Nevertheless, girls from elementary school to college loved both the anime and manga versions of Sailor Moon, which became a foundational geek girl text all over the world, from Japan to Indonesia to Russia to France to Brazil to the United States. Why?

The 1980s and early 1990s were a period of transition out of the conservative cultural backlash against sexual liberalism. “Good girls” didn’t show skin, and influential feminists encouraged women to deny their sexuality in the name of fighting the patriarchy. If you were female and didn’t want to be a social miscreant, you had two choices: be pretty but hide yourself from the male gaze, or put on a suit and become a de facto man yourself.

Sailor Moon rode the cusp of third wave feminism, which held that young women didn’t have to choose between being feminine and being respected; this is where the slogan “girl power” comes from. What Sailor Moon exemplified was the idea that you could present as girly and still be treated seriously. In other words, young women (and plenty of young gay men) read Sailor Moon with a subjectifying female gaze, seeing the Sailor Scouts as powerful role models of female agency and homosocial friendship even despite the fact that they all wore tiny little skirts into battle.

I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I still feel comfortable making the generalization that, when girls and young women saw those skirts, they weren’t thinking about phallocentric economies of desire in which the exposed flesh of youthful females is privileged in the fantasies of straight men. Instead, they saw the freedom and vivacious energy represented by unapologetic girliness that refused to acknowledge that the male gaze was even a thing they needed to be worried about.

This paradox, in which a character can seem to cater to the male gaze and still be an empowering icon to non-male people, applies to Linkle as well.

Although the international gaming industry is ever so slowly becoming more inclusive, lady gamers have been wandering in a desert largely devoid of positive female representation for a long time. In order to keep ourselves spiritually hydrated, we apply our female gaze to everything we encounter, thus allowing ourselves to find pleasure even in video game titles and franchises with overt elements of misogyny.

But let’s be honest – female-friendly undertones are no match for female-friendly overtones.

Even though Linkle’s design inarguably contains traces of male-gaze moé bait, the fact remains that she is a playable character who isn’t sidelined but is being given the attention she deserves. We asked for a female version of Link, and we got her!

Sure, Linkle isn’t perfect, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Nintendo is allowing the Zelda franchise to take baby steps, as in Tri Force Heroes, in which Link is allowed to dress and present his gender however he wants. Tsunderin of the feminist media blog Lady Geek Girl explains the progressive nature of this gameplay element as follows:

When crafting these outfits, Link changes into them immediately and one of the customers in the boutique comments on them. Every time, she has something nice to say about Link’s chosen outfit; she always mentions how cute he looks and that he’s very stylish. While this is a simple thing that can be taken as a throw-away, I do think it’s important. How often do people, especially kids, get to see in media someone being complimented for wearing something that may not be stereotypically for their gender? Without it being a joke?

In my own essay The Legends of Zelda, I argue that Zelda fans have been applying a female gaze to the franchise for years, and that the engagement of these fans is finally starting to be acknowledged by the gaming industry:

I could give endless examples of how media production companies in North America, Europe, and Japan have responded to fan demands for more female representation in video games, but I’d like to emphasize that the active and creative fans who thrive in social mediascapes do have voices that are heard not just by their peers but also by the senior producers whose positions they will one day inherit.

If you find Linkle’s character design to be kind of gross, I hear you, and I understand. I can get totally behind the frustration and anger surrounding Nintendo’s apparent refusal to be more overtly inclusive, but I still think it’s okay for feminist gamers to celebrate small victories.

I’d like to think Linkle is another step in the right direction. Her female subjectivity will hopefully inspire a female gaze in younger players who are just starting to acquire the tools that will help them undermine the dominant male gaze. More female representation is always welcome, especially in the world of video games.

Just as Sailor Moon once exploded into an important period of cultural transition, so too is Linkle, who is boldly carving out room for girliness in a high-profile gaming franchise on a ridiculously successful handheld console known for its popularity with girls and young women.

I have been waiting for a female Link my entire life, and now that she’s here I adore her.

Linkle by Aatmaja Pandya

The above illustration is by Aatmaja Pandya on Tumblr.

The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga

Natasha Allegri Madoka PuppyCat

On January 18 of 2015, Ed Chavez, the Marketing Director at manga publisher Vertical, replied to a Twitter user’s question on ask.fm regarding whether manga is becoming a niche entertainment industry outside of Japan. Chavez’s response was a definite “maybe.” After stating that shōnen manga is selling just as well – if not better – than it always has, Chavez added the caveat that, “Unlike the 00’s, where a shojo boom introduced a whole new demographic to manga, there hasn’t been a culture shifting movement recently.” Johanna Draper Carlson, one of the most well-respected and prolific manga critics writing in English, responded to Chavez’s assessment on her blog Comics Worth Reading. She agreed with him, adding, “I find myself working harder to find series I want to follow. Many new releases seem to fall into pre-existing categories that have already demonstrated success: vampire romance, harem fantasy, adventure quests, and so on. It’s harder to find the kind of female-oriented story that [has always appealed] to me.” Meanwhile, the manga that stood at the top of the New York Times’s “Best Sellers” list for manga that week was the seventh volume of a series called Finder, a boys’ love story targeted at an over-18 female audience.

What we’re seeing here, from Chavez’s reference to a former boom in shōjo manga sales to evidence that even a title from a niche category for women can sell just as well as the latest volume of the shōnen juggernaut One Piece, is that girls and women in North America do care about manga, and that they are active participants in manga fandom cultures. What I’d like to do today is to provide a bit of background on how female readers were courted by manga publishers – specifically Tokyopop – and then to demonstrate how manga has influenced the women who grew up with it to reshape North American comics and animation with a shōjo flair.

I’d like to argue that, despite periods of relatively low sales in the United States, shōjo manga (and the animated adaptations of these manga) have had a strong cultural impact on recent generations of fans. During the past fifteen years, fan discussions and fannish artistic production have nourished diverse interests in Japanese cultural products, which are in turn beginning to exert a stronger influence on mainstream geek media. Using M. Alice LeGrow‘s graphic novel series Bizenghast and Natasha Allegri‘s animated webseries Bee and PuppyCat as case studies, I want to demonstrate how it is not only the visual styles and narrative tropes of shōjo manga that have increasingly begun to influence North American media, but the creative consumption patterns of shōjo fandom communities as well.

Tokyopop Smile Magazine July 2001

Before I talk about American interpretations of shōjo cultures, however, I’d like to skim through a bit of publishing history. In the mid-1990s, there was a Barnes-and-Noble-style big suburban box store called Media Play, which had an entire section devoted to manga and Japanese culture magazines. One of the most prominent of these magazines was fledgling publisher Tokyopop’s manga anthology MixxZine, which began serialization in 1997 and ran the manga version of Sailor Moon as well as the similarly themed fantasy shōjo series Magic Knight Rayearth and Card Captor Sakura. In 1999, the magazine changed its name to “Tokyopop” and began to target an older male audience by dropping its shōjo manga and focusing on shōnen and seinen titles. Tokyopop the magazine folded in 2000 but was survived by a publication called Smile, which was a bulky, 160-page monthly magazine that serialized only shōjo manga. In 2001, Media Play’s parent company was bought out by Best Buy. When Media Play stores were closed, Tokyopop lost a major venue for its magazines, and Smile folded in 2002.

Now that a large fanbase had been created, however, Tokyopop was able to launch a program it called “Global Manga,” which was kicked off by the 2002 “Rising Stars of Manga” talent competition. The winning entries were published in a volume of the same size and length of the publisher’s Japanese manga titles. There were eventually eight volumes of The Rising Stars of Manga, with the last appearing in the summer of 2008. During this time, certain winners were encouraged to submit proposals to Tokyopop, which published their work as OEL, or “original English language,” manga. By my count, about half of Tokyopop’s OEL manga were shōjo series. Examples include Peach Fuzz, Shutter Box, Fool’s Gold, and Sorcerers & Secretaries. Tokyopop promoted these titles with free “sampler” publications distributed by mail and at anime conventions, which were exploding in number and attendance in the United States and Canada during the 2000s. Although users of anime-related message boards and fannish social media sites debated the company’s use of the term “manga” to describe these graphic novels, Tokyopop was able to attract well-known American entertainment franchises to the medium, such as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and for the girls, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie’s Goblin King in all his spandex-clad glory.

Return to Labyrinth OEL Manga

One of the Tokyopop’s most popular OEL manga titles was M. Alice LeGrow’s eight-volume series Bizenghast, which, like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, is a shōjo story with shōnen elements. LeGrow’s story takes the adorable mascot creatures, monsters-of-the-week, cute costumes, adoring and beautiful young men, and powerful female villains of Japanese manga for girls and transplants them to the small Massachusetts community of Bizenghast, which becomes an Edgar Allan Poe-ified Gothic wonderland after dark. The art style combines the huge eyes and wide panels of fan-favorite shōjo manga like Fruits Basket and Fushigi Yûgi with steampunk Art Deco motifs and Edward Gorey-style line etchings. The artistic and narrative conventions of manga and the stylizations of Western fantasy are so delicately blended and intermixed that it’s impossible to tell whether Bizenghast is a manga with American influences or a graphic novel with Japanese influences.

Bizenghast Volume 1 Page 075

What I want to highlight is the way that the Tokyopop publications of each volume in the Bizenghast series included a section at the end for fan art and cosplay photos, thus encouraging and legitimizing reader participation in the way that shōjo magazines have done since the early twentieth century in Japan.

Bizenghast Fan Art Spread

Instead of eschewing or actively opposing fandom involvement, and specifically female fandom involvement, Tokyopop pursued it, allowing LeGrow to maintain her presence on the fannish artistic networking site deviantART, where she was able to interact with her fans. Due to the non-localized nature of the internet, LeGrow was able to build a fanbase that stretched around the globe, with Bizenghast being published in translation in Germany, Finland, Russia, and Hungary, as well as in several countries of the British Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand. In addition to assigning Bizenghast its own dedicated website, Tokyopop released a light novel adaptation, an art book, and even a coloring book based on the world of the manga. Although Tokyopop shut down its publishing operations in May 2011, it continued to offer certain titles through a print-on-demand service managed by the online anime retailer The Right Stuf. The initial line-up of these titles included the massively popular manga Hetalia Axis Powers and the eighth and concluding volume of Bizenghast. What I’d like to emphasize here is that, in its publication and promotion of Bizenghast as an OEL shōjo manga product, Tokyopop actively promoted the sort of interactive fan consumption utilized by Japanese shōjo manga publishers – and this encouragement paid off, quite literally.

Multiple market watchers have located the peak of United States manga sales in the mid-to-late 2000s. Even though Tokyopop ceased its manga magazines earlier in the decade, Viz Media stepped in with an English-language version of Shonen Jump, which was paired with a monthly sister magazine, Shojo Beat. Shojo Beat, which ran from June 2005 until July 2009, also styled itself as a lifestyle magazine, running articles about clothing, makeup, and real-life romantic concerns. Although Shojo Beat did not include OEL manga, manga publisher Yen Press’s publication Yen Plus did. From its launch in July 2008, the editors of Yen Plus solicited reader contributions, which resulted in both one-shot and continuing OEL manga appearing within the pages of the magazine.

In addition, Yen Press’s parent company Hachette began releasing manga adaptations of some of its biggest young adult properties, including Gossip Girl, Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series, and, of course, Twilight. For our purposes, it’s interesting to note that these manga adaptations all had a strong shōjo feel, as did other franchise manga revisionings created by longstanding American comics publishers such as Marvel and Vertigo. What these publishers seemed to be jumping on was the idea that manga could reach an audience of young women (and young-at-heart women) who may have felt excluded from traditionally male-centered genres like action comics and science fiction. These female readers increasingly came equipped with access to online and in-person fandom networks, which could help ensure the longevity and profitability of any given franchise, as was famously the case with Star Trek and Harry Potter.

Twilight Manga

What we’re seeing, then, is the creation and growth of an audience for shōjo manga that began in the 1990s and has extended throughout the past two decades. So – has this changed anything? I’d like to argue that it has, and that we’re starting to see a definite shōjo influence on mainstream entertainment media in North America.

One of the most interesting incarnations of this trend is Cartoon Network’s animated television series Adventure Time, whose producers have actively scouted young talent from places like comic conventions and fannish art sharing websites such as Tumblr. A number of these artists are women from the generation that grew up reading and watching shōjo series such as Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena, and easily identifiable references to these titles occasionally pop up in the show. Rebecca Sugar, a storyboard artist for Adventure Time, ended up being given a green light by Cartoon Network to create a magical boy show, Steven Universe, that features all manner of references to anime, manga, and video game culture. Natasha Allegri, another storyboard writer and character designer for Adventure Time, launched a Kickstarter project backed by Adventure Time‘s Studio Frederator for a magical girl animated series called Bee and PuppyCat, which received an overwhelming amount of support from both Adventure Time fans and the enormous shōjo manga fanbase on Tumblr.

Lady and Peebles

What’s really cool about these three properties is that they all have separate monthly comic book incarnations published by Boom! Studios. There’s a lot to be said about these comic books, but what I want to emphasize here is that each monthly issue features shorts and variant covers by young and upcoming artists. The comic book version of Bee and PuppyCat is especially notable in that most of its contributing artists are female, and many of them include obvious stylistic and topical references to elements of Japanese popular culture such as Studio Ghibli character stylizations, magical girl henshin transformation sequences, and role-playing video games. Although Natasha Allegri has stated in multiple interviews (here’s one) that she’s a fan of manga such as Sailor Moon and Takahashi Rumiko’s supernatural romance InuYasha, and even though the influence of these titles is quite clear in her work, Bee and PuppyCat has not been promoted as a type of OEL anime but rather as just another cool new addition to the Studio Frederator lineup. In other words, the strong shōjo elements of the show and its comic book are presented as completely natural and naturalized to a North American audience.

I’m going to wrap things up by summarizing my main points. First, I think we can say that the iconography of shōjo manga and anime are entering American popular culture full force. Second, I believe that seeing better representation of diverse female characters in shōjo manga has encouraged more young women outside of Japan to seek careers in comics and animation. Third, although it’s difficult to make strong statements in the current market, I think it’s safe to say that the “reader participation” model employed by Japanese shōjo publishers has been fairly financially successful in the United States. Fourth and finally, I’m going to conclude that we will therefore see an even stronger embrace of shōjo-related narrative influences, art styles, and fandom cultures as the members of the Adventure Time and Bee and PuppyCat generation, who are currently in college, start coming out with their own work. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of shōjo manga, and I’m happy that young women and men are still as excited about shōjo-flavored comics and animation as I was when I first discovered Sailor Moon almost twenty years ago.

Bee and PuppyCat Comic Issue 06 Meredith McClaren

The above image is a scan of a page from Meredith McClaren‘s short comic in the sixth issue of the Bee and PuppyCat comic book series.

Innocence and Sexual Maturity in His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials Trilogy

This weekend I am guest posting over at Lady Geek Girl and Friends, a multi-author blog devoted to geek culture with a refreshingly feminist perspective. I adore their articles on topics such as Beauty, Morality, and Magic and The Problem of God in His Dark Materials, so I contributed an essay on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in which I talk about how weird it is that Lyra Belacqua, the amazing female protagonist of the first novel in the series, gets sidelined in favor of a less amazing male protagonist in the next two novels. I argue that it doesn’t make sense to revoke narrative interiority from that character whose nascent sexuality is the key to one of the story’s major themes, namely, the transition from innocence to experience.

The essay is divided into two parts:

In Which the Protagonist is Suddenly Male

Why I Wish the Protagonist Were Female

Is It Sexist?

Yes It's Sexist

The term “sexism” refers to:

(a) the idea that each sex has a set of related characteristics that are common to all members of that sex, and

(b) the discrimination that inevitably results from this idea.

“Is it sexist?” can be a tricky question with multiple gray areas that are open to interpretation, but it’s not rocket science.

If it’s a work of fiction, are sexist statements such as “Like all women, she was a poor driver” made not by characters (who are allowed to have stupid opinions, just like real people) but by omniscient third-person narrators or obvious author stand-in devices? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of fiction, are 80% to 100% of the writers represented male? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a work of nonfiction, does it rely on sexist statements such as “there are no lesbians in Japanese history” as evidence to support its arguments? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of academic nonfiction, do none of the scholars acknowledge the existence or influence of real (as opposed to fictional) women within the scope of their studies? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an encyclopedia or other reference work, are fewer than 20% of the entries about real (as opposed to fictional) women? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a man, does it attribute every negative thing that happened in that man’s life to a woman? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a woman, does the author undermine her personal agency and criticize her decisions as not being appropriate to her gender? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a series of interviews, does the interviewer ask a different set of questions based on the sex of the person being interviewed, such as asking women about their families while asking men about their careers? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a publisher, is more than 80% of the company’s output the work of male writers and artists? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

OH NO, SOMEONE CALLED MY WORK SEXIST. WHAT NOW?????

Again, this can get complicated, but you’re not trying to land a rover on Mars here. You have two options:

(1) Flip out and starting delivering tirades against all the nasty mean people who don’t know anything and are ruining your fun with their trite and ignorant libel. You may want to use the term “feminazi,” because someone pointing out that women are people is just like Hitler invading Poland. Obviously.

(2) Take a break and eat a sandwich or something. Once you’ve calmed down, recognize that your accuser may have a point. If you’re an author or a press, meditate on the statistics concerning how much money women spend on books, and take some time to think about how many choices people have in terms of where they get their reading material.

In conclusion, books are for smart people, but sexism is stupid. The end.