Permitted and Prohibited Desires

Title: Permitted and Prohibited Desires:
Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan

Author: Anne Allison
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication Year: 1996
Pages: 213

I am not a fan of theory. To be perfectly honest, I find the vast majority of it, from Barthes to Foucault to Kristeva to Butler, very difficult to read. The ideas are interesting, certainly, but the contexts often feel dated, and the language is occasionally impenetrable. I suppose this is an occupational hazard, though, as specific terminology is needed to express certain ideas, and the names of theorists are useful as metonymic signifiers of certain strains of thought. Also, although pure theory can sometimes come across as bogwash, its application to more textually grounded studies helps to both deepen and widen the scope of the topic, making something like pornographic manga, for example, relevant to the non-specialist.

In Permitted and Prohibited Desires, anthropologist Anne Allison applies gender and cinema theory to adult manga, arguing that its pornographic elements attest more to the weakness of men than they do to the exploitation of women. Allison reacts against the position of feminists like Andrea Dworkin, who argues that pornography is always misogynistic, and Catherine MacKinnon, who treats pornography as both a reflection and cause of gender inequality, in order to argue for a more nuanced view of how gender functions within pornography, which restricts male social and sexual roles perhaps even more than it restricts those of women.

In the erotic manga that Allison discusses, women are indeed penetrated, gazed upon, and reduced to a spectacle against their will, but men are often absent or unnecessary. Allison demonstrates that the male position of dominance is undermined by the fact that the man is often unable to obtain consent from the woman, as well as by the fact that his genitals are never directly shown but instead replaced with inanimate substitutes like baseball bats and soda bottles. Many scenarios do not feature men at all but leave a woman or pair of women to their own autonomous devices. When the two sexes are paired, however, the display of aggressive female desire often leaves the man impotent, thus driving him to lash out violently at his partner. In other words, the pornographic manga that Allison discusses betrays a strong stake in maintaining a fiction of male domination. It also goes out of its way to construct a clear opposition between male and female sexual identities. Although the man’s position as aggressor and voyeur is meant to empower him, the necessity of his resort to violence suggests that his gaze is not as powerful as it might seem.

Allison does not challenge the notion that the Japanese social order is inherently phallocentric, but she argues that its economic and organizational structures put an enormous burden on men. She sees the brutalized women of pornographic manga as representing real women – such as the potential sexual partners who make themselves unavailable to the reader, or the wives and mothers who are perceived as single-handedly managing a household in which men have become irrelevant. However, these fictional women also stand in for other things that chain males to patriarchal societal expectations, such as entrance exams and companies that require infinite hours of overtime. Allison states that the relatively open acceptance of erotic manga, which are published so as to be easily consumed during a commute, functions as a pressure release valve that allows men to indulge in superficially subversive fantasies before then returning to their primary roles as workers. Pornographic manga thus provide an escape for men, but the escape is only temporary and belies numerous fears of male impotence and powerlessness.

Fun stuff, right? Actually, oddly enough, it is. Allison writes in a very accessible style; and, when she refers to critical literature to make her argument, she draws out and pinpoints exactly what she is referring to. She will never merely cite the Freudian understanding of castration anxiety but rather delve into it in detail, explaining how it differs from a Lacanian understanding and how both understandings relate to the manga narrative in question. As a result, I feel like I learned a lot from Permitted and Prohibited Desires that had nothing to do with manga or Japan. Also, for readers who might not be familiar with the visual conventions of Japanese pornography, the book is filled with well-chosen illustrations that are sufficiently not safe for work. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

But don’t let me fool you into thinking that discussions of erotic cartoons, adult manga, and censorship laws are all this book has to offer. Sandwiched between chapters on fictional fantasy women are two essays on Japanese motherhood that had previously been published elsewhere to great acclaim. According to the book’s introduction, these two chapters, “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs” and “Producing Mothers,” are based on Allison’s own experience as a mother of two young children while doing research in Japan. Although the purpose of these two chapters is to show how women are almost coerced into becoming good mothers by school regulations concerning everything from uniforms and homework to the prepared lunches children must bring to school with them, the author’s descriptions of her own hardships and surprises are fairly entertaining as stories in and of themselves. These chapters are aptly illustrated with images from Japanese magazines that showcase the obentō lunchboxes that constitute such a large symbolic portion of the relationship between mother and child in Japan. Allison ties these two chapters into the larger theme of the book with a highly relevant discussion of mother-son incest fantasies, which she uses to show how both parties are bound to state ideology even in pornography.

Although Allison’s application of psychoanalytic theory to erotic manga reveals many aspects of the psychology of the male reader, it neglects to take into account the position of female readers, either of pornography marketed towards men or of josei manga, which can be equally pornographic. Allison’s study of pornographic manga is highly useful in its analysis of how women are constructed in narratives written by men and for men, but I feel that work still needs to be done on how women are characterized in narratives written by and for women. Also, Permitted and Prohibited Desires discusses real women primarily in the context of “traditionally” accepted roles like housewife and caregiver. Allison succeeds in showing how these roles have been fetishized by Japanese media and educational superstructures, but she also risks the perpetuation of this fetishization by arguing that it is only through their mothers that men in Japan are able to enter into adulthood. The roles of women as sexual objects and as mothers are given primacy in Permitted and Prohibited Desires, but obviously these roles are far from the only roles occupied by both real and fictional women in Japan. Nevertheless, I feel that this book serves as an excellent foundation for the study of female characters in manga, and it can be easily supplemented by the numerous works that have followed in its wake – one of the most recent being the newest issue of the U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, which collects a handful of essays on shōjo manga written by Japanese academics.

Before I wrap up, I must admit that I am writing this review partially in response to the recently published essay collection Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives edited by Toni Johnson-Woods. The essays in this book cover a wide range of topics, but they are less analytical than descriptive, explaining manga to an audience that has presumably never seen or read one before. The book also succumbs to one of my personal pet peeves, the italicization of Japanese words that have become common in America, such as anime, manga, shōjo, and shōnen. This stylistic decision is disconcerting not only because the introduction attempts to argue that manga are a truly global phenomenon (using evidence like a picture of a section of bookshelves clearly labeled “Manga” in a Borders book store), but also because such words are used so frequently in all of the essays. I was hoping that this collection would be to the study of manga what Susan Napier’s Anime is to the study of Japanese animation, but it’s just basic information presented in a somewhat unprofessional manner. That’s a harsh judgment, I know, but my disappointment is commensurate to my expectations. In the end, I still find myself searching for the perfect book about manga, but Permitted and Prohibited Desires will do well enough for now.