Manga-Inspired Comics at Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2015

Last month I posted an essay titled The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga in which I argued that the work of young comics creators in North America has increasingly come to demonstrate narrative and visual allusions to shōjo manga.

Such influences are readily on display in the Artist Alleys at anime conventions, which I illustrated in an earlier post on fan comics at the Los Angeles Anime Expo. Transformative works based on anime and manga are obviously drawn to reflect the artistic conventions employed in these media, as are the majority of the original comics distributed at anime conventions.

What about comics conventions that aren’t directly connected to anime and manga?

This past May, I had the opportunity to travel to Canada to attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), one of the largest and most prominent gatherings of small comics presses and independent comics creators in North America (others include the MoCCA Arts Festival in New York and the Small Press Expo just outside of Washington DC). On the day I attended, the venue was absolutely packed with fans and creators, and there were tons of references and homages to manga to be seen.

The most high-profile celebrations of manga culture at the TCAF came in the form of two special guests from Japan, the contemporary alternative manga posterchild Taiyo Matsumoto and the god of bara (male/male) manga Gengoroh Tagame, both of whom were enthusiastically welcomed. Established and well respected comics publishers such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly also actively promoted their releases of translated manga.

In addition, the TCAF was bursting with self-published comics of all shapes and sizes, and I’d like to share my scans of the covers of some of the manga-influenced work I had the great fortune to get my hands on while I was there.

Destroy Rape Culture

Destroy Rape Culture, by Starchild Stela
In which the Sailor Senshi encourage you to smash the patriarchy.

Magical Beatdown

Magical Beatdown, by Jenn Woodall
In which a magical girl beats the everloving crap out of street harassment.
(This comic is brilliant and should win the next Nobel Prize for Literature. Sorry Murakami.)

How to Make a Magic Wand

How to Make a Magic Wand, written by Chris Eng and illustrated by Jenn Woodall
A field guide to utterly decimating the sexist assholes in your life like a badass mahō shōjo.

Lacrimancer

Lacrimancer, by Jade F. Lee
I’m digging that Revolutionary Girl Utena realness.

Louisa Roy Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts, by Louisa Roy
Such gorgeous art, such lovely writing, such interesting research, so Rose of Versailles.

This Tastes Funny

This Tastes Funny, an anthology by the Suddenly Sentai collective
Stories about food with shōnen manga stylings.

No Scope

No Scope, by Sara Goetter
And let us not forget that video games are part of the manga media mix too.
(Sara Goetter’s RPG-inspired original comics are amazeballs, by the way.)

The Enemies of Twenty Something Mega Man

The Enemies of Twenty-Something Mega Man, published by The Devastator (NSFW)
They also have a book about otaku, but it’s too close to home and it hurts.

This is the standard disclaimer that the work posted above is not universally representative and is subject to my own taste and resources. If I have misrepresented an artist, or if you are an artist who wants any links or images removed, please let me know.

Sailor Moon and Femininity

It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization. That femininity is a set of degrading behaviors that communicates one’s level of commitment to male authority and women’s oppression. That femininity is coerced appeasement, regardless of how successfully it is now marketed to young women as feminism.

So says Jill Twisty at her blog I Blame the Patriarchy.

I agree with her. So much has been written on this topic that I don’t need to be convinced that such a statement is true.

But… What if there were no men?

Or what if men existed, but simply weren’t that important? What if we didn’t live in a patriarchy? What if we didn’t live in a world where men are assumed to be the standard normative subjects and the ultimate bearers of political, legal, social, economic, religious, and sexual power? What if “femininity” didn’t need to be defined according to its deviations from “masculinity” (which connotes maturity, power, authority, and rationality), and what if “femininity” weren’t something to be performed for a presumed audience of men (and women who wield a male gaze)? Would femininity still be perceived as a submission to oppressive phallocentric interests?

These questions form the core of why the manga Sailor Moon is so fascinating to me. A story about women, created by a woman, edited by a woman, written for a popular female audience, and enthusiastically embraced by an adult female fandom, Sailor Moon is an example of a homosocial female space in which women can talk about women and femininity without having to worry about what men are thinking.

Because the early volumes of the series are about young girls – and beautiful young girls (bishōjo) at that – their reception has not always been feminist-positive, however. For example, in his monograph Beautiful Fighting Girl, psychologist and cultural theorist Saitō Tamaki discusses the anime version of Sailor Moon as a prime example of why the “beautiful girl” trope appeals so much to men. In America, cinema scholar Susan Napier and anthropologist Anne Allison both take issue with the series, finding it a stale mash-up of tropes characteristic of the mahō shōjo (magical girl) genre as it has existed since the mid-seventies. Both scholars also view the anime series in particular as catering to a male audience eager for sexual titillation. Napier, for instance, finds the Sailor Scouts “lacking in psychological depth,” while Allison finds it troubling that the “girl heroes tend to strip down in the course of empowerment, becoming more, rather than less, identified by their flesh,” a trademark visual feature of Sailor Moon that “feeds and is fed by a general trend in Japan toward the infantilization of sex objects.”

Unfortunately, these evaluations do not take into account the female fans of the series, who seem to be less interested in the sexual aspects of the short-skirted female warriors and more eager to identify with the empowered femininity they represent. These fans are also willing to tolerate the weak characterization in the opening volumes of the series in order to enjoy the opportunities presented later in the story for the female heroes to develop their individual talents, personalities, and bonds with each other. In Sailor Moon, the female heroes begin as girls, but they gradually mature into capable and competent young women who must shoulder great responsibility and make difficult choices, usually without the support or interference of men.

To celebrate the recent North American release of a new translation of the Sailor Moon manga, an eighteen-year-old blogger on LiveJournal wrote of the series that:

[Sailor Moon] is a world where femininity is not something to be ashamed of, it’s the source of POWER. The girls don’t use their pretty clothes and jewels and compacts as playthings to impress men – these things are all weapons against evil, and powerful ones. They declare themSELVES pretty, needing approval from no one. Our hero possesses all the typical “chick” attributes – emotional, tearful, forgiving, loving, nurturing – and she uses these attributes to triumph and kick ass. She burns monsters alive with the purity of her love, sends out supersonic waves that shake the villains down when she bursts into tears, and her friendship and forgiveness is the most effective superpower one could ask for. The “girly” emotions and affectations are not something to be ashamed of or suppressed, but the source of the power these girls wield. They don’t have to imitate guy heroes at all or act “masculine” to be taken seriously – girliness is just as powerful.

Although someone like Saitō might see Sailor Moon as nothing more than a smorgasbord of tropes that can be endlessly combined and recombined to suit any male fetish, and although prominent critics such as Napier and Allison echo his reading, female readers find something entirely different in the series: they see a group of young women who fight not for the approval of a father or a boyfriend (or a male reader), but rather to achieve their own goals and ambitions. Moreover, they learn that being female isn’t something to be ashamed of; and, according to later developments in the series, neither is homosexuality or a transgendered identity.

Far from regurgitating the tropes of the magical girl genre, Sailor Moon creator Takeuchi Naoko overturned the conventions of both shōjo romance for girls and bishōjo fantasy for boys. Furthermore, the female fans of Sailor Moon aren’t invested in the series merely in order to lose themselves in fantasy (and spin-off merchandise), but rather because they find that the series empowers them to combat real-world problems directly related to the assumption that young women and the femininity associated with them exist only to please men. The fantasy created by Sailor Moon is not an escape from the gendered conventions and restrictions of reality, but rather a safe space in which these aspects of reality can be tested and challenged. Perhaps this is why Sailor Moon has appealed to so many women outside of its target demographic, and perhaps this is why it has appealed to so many boys and men as well.

If you haven’t read Sailor Moon, the Kodansha Comics re-release is beautifully published and contains a wealth of translation and cultural notes that help make sense of the story and characters. The first two or three volumes of the series can come off as a bit childish; but, as the characters grow and mature, the story does as well. If you’re a girl or a guy, or if you’re a serious manga reader or don’t read many manga at all, Sailor Moon is worth reading simply for the experience of entering a world in which femininity is indeed ” is not something to be ashamed of” but instead “the source of POWER.” The manga is also an excellent introduction to an alternative realm of discourse (common in Japanese manga and spreading to Western comics – partially due to the influence of Sailor Moon) in which female writers and artists can tell their own stories without really worrying about how men are reading and looking at them.

If you’re intrigued, check out the Sailor Moon Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Sean Gaffney’s at A Case Suitable for Treatment over on Manga Bookshelf.

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.

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five)

If we can assume that the fantasy trope of mystical female other in bondage gear is popular among men, perhaps we can likewise assume that the fantasy trope often referred to as Draco in Leather Pants is popular among women. According to this trope, a man with a complicated past, equally complicated motivations, and a markedly antisocial streak has a heart of gold somewhere deep inside – especially if he’s handsome. The character Balthier from Final Fantasy XII meets all of these conditions; and, judging from the amount of fan fiction and fan art that has been created in his honor, female fans of the game love him.

It is therefore not unreasonable to argue that Balthier’s design and characterization both contain just as many fetish elements as Fran’s. After all, the male characters in the Final Fantasy series are subject to the same narrative tropes as the female characters. If Rydia is wedged into the role of spell caster by virtue of her gender, then Cecil is similarly cast into the role of the dark/white knight by virtue of his own gender. Moreover, if Rydia is sexually attractive to men, Cecil is perhaps even more attractive according to non-heteronormative female standards of male beauty (which include delicate features and long, willowy limbs). This is fantasy, and we want our characters to be attractive, and interesting, and suitably epic. There is no rule, after all, that says fantasy has to be any less subject to the confines of narrative tropes than, say, interwar French existentialist fiction.

If everyone in the Final Fantasy games is fetishized, and if everyone is subject to gendered tropes, however, can the series really be called “feminist”? Through my discussion of Rydia, Aeris, and Fran, I have attempted to prove that each successive game in the Final Fantasy series has become less sexist and phallocentric. I posited at the beginning of this essay that a “feminist” work contains “strong” (by which I mean “multi-dimensional” and “featured prominently”) female characters who are not villainized. By this standard of judgment, the games in the Final Fantasy series are indeed feminist works. Even though the player-protagonist is often male, this character is usually subordinate to the narrative importance of a central female character. Even though the story of this female character is seen through the eyes of a male character, it is her story that is being told, and the male player-protagonist is just along for the ride. While the player controls the gameplay, the actions of the female protagonist advance the plot and open more of the game’s world.

Although we could once safely assume that the gamer behind the player-protagonist was male, this is no longer the case; he is now just as likely to be controlled by a woman. The player-protagonist may have his own story, but he is also the eyes through which the player looks and the hands and feet by which the player explores and manipulates the world. Such a direct player identification thus makes his identity somewhat less than stable, along with his gender and sexual orientation. The player-protagonist is arguably little more than a cipher in many situations (such as Tidus in Final Fantasy X, who is never addressed or referred to by name, lest the player’s identification with him be impeded), and the true spotlight shines on the female protagonists of the series, such as Rinoa, Garnet, Yuna, and Ashe.

Perhaps, because these female characters were created by development teams consisting primarily of men, they can never be considered “pure” feminist role models, but there is another side to the equation – the female (and male!) fans of the series who have been inspired by these characters and have interpreted them in ways that may differ wildly from the original intentions of their creators. As I have argued elsewhere, a text does not end with the “Game Over” screen but rather spins into ever wider and deeper perversions in the personal fantasies of the player. These personal fantasies can then be reinforced and expanded upon when introduced into larger communities of gamers. Player reception is engaged in a feedback loop with Square-Enix, which has used the enormous revenue it has earned from the Final Fantasy franchise in order to develop games that will better appeal to its fans, both new and old. The strong female characters of the series have resulted in a large and vocal female following, which has in turn resulted in Final Fantasy XIII, a title that has been celebrated as a truly feminist video game. As gaming technology becomes more sophisticated, and as the narrative mechanisms of role playing games become more innovative and complex, I am looking forward to meeting the female characters in the future of Final Fantasy.

I cannot claim to have the final word on Final Fantasy, or on the topic of video games, role playing, and gender. Allow me to therefore cite my sources and inspirations, both online and in print.

The absolute best pieces of writing on Final Fantasy that I have ever had the pleasure of reading are collected under the title The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy. Each of these essays is quite long, but each is beautifully written and provides all of the background information I have omitted, which is presented in a humorous and highly intelligent tone. The online video game “magazine” The Escapist recently posted a video essay called True Female Characters, which is a bit superficial in terms of analysis but makes some good points and provides several examples of female characters in video games who are prime examples of sexist stereotypes. A short, journalistic article called Getting the Girl offers an interesting counterpoint to this discussion in the light it sheds on female game developers and the market pressures they face when designing female characters. The website The Mary Sue has a number of interesting pieces on women and geek culture, including statistics relating to female gamers.

If you’re interested in other aspects of the Final Fantasy series as viewed from a “scholarly” analytical perspective, there is an essay in Mechademia 4: War/Time titled “Imagined History, Fading Memory: Mastering Narrative in Final Fantasy X.” This essay is somewhat crippled by the word count imposed by the journal, but it contains an interesting argument relating to how the narrative structure of the game may relate to Japan’s experience of modernity. There are also several interesting and tangentially related articles in an academic journal called Games and Culture, including an essay on ethics in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, as well as an interesting piece on fantasy races in MMO-RPGs.

On a broader level, Sharalyn Orbaugh’s “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture” (found in the collection Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field) is an excellent discussion of cross-gender character identification in a Japanese context. All four chapters of Tania Modleski’s short but brilliant Loving with a Vengeance discuss the romance tropes surrounding male characters and might be useful for a sustained inquiry into why a character like Balthier (or Sephiroth) is so popular with female fans. Finally, while I was writing this essay, I was addicted to Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan’s Deconstructing Disney, which opens by making a strong case for why we should continue to analyze popular culture and then goes on to provide an fantastic model of how to do so.

All of the games and characters I have discussed, as well as (almost) all of the images I have borrowed, belong to Square-Enix. Square-Enix, I love you. Please don’t sue me.

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Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Four)

When one looks at Fran from Final Fantasy XII, the first thing that jumps to mind is most likely bunny girl or perhaps fetish character. Fran is tall, beautiful, and wearing very little clothing. The clothing that she is wearing is black leather bondage gear. She is marked as exotic not only by her rabbit ears but also by her Icelandic accent and the coffee color of her skin. If there were ever a character who seems designed solely for heterosexual male viewing pleasure, Fran would appear to be that character. Putting issues of costuming aside, however, I don’t think Final Fantasy XII’s characterization of Fran is in any way sexist.

Before I explain why her characterization isn’t sexist, let me first address the issue of why I don’t think her characterization is racist. Although it’s very easy to jump to the facile conclusion that Fran is just another example of a hyper-sexualized black woman, I would argue that this is not in fact the case. The most significant counter-argument against this claim is that Fran is not black, at least not in the sense that being “black” in America carries with it a great deal of history and cultural significance. In Ivalice, the fantasy world that Fran inhabits, there are many races of people with whom the player has extensive contact, and none of these races is distinguished by racial stereotypes (as, for example, Vulcans and Klingons are in the Star Trek universe).

To give an example, the Bangaa are a type of bipedal lizard-like people with floppy puppy-dog ears. Some of them are bounty hunters, and some of them are merchants or traders, and some of them are mechanics. Some of them are vicious and cruel, and some of them are pleasant and kind. Some of them are intelligent, and some of them are stupid. Some of them have red skin, and some have green skin, and some have blue skin, and some have brownish-yellow skin. Because the player comes into contact wide such a wide variety of Bangaa, and because the game itself does not stereotype them in any way, it’s almost impossible to create an overgeneralizing racial profile.

Fran’s race, the Viera, are the same. Although they all have rabbit ears, different individuals have different color hair, eyes, skin, and ear-fur. While some dress in skimpy clothing, others do not. While some live in the forest like mystical rabbit-healer-elf-ninjas, others do not. While some are wise and bound to nature, others live in urban areas and engage in commerce and trifling romantic affairs. The fantasy world of Invalice is a pan-cultural diaspora in the truest sense of the word, and one of the primary themes of the game is that the twin concepts of “homeland” and “people” are nothing if not extremely problematic.

While Fran may be exotic, then, I don’t feel that the game’s depiction of her is particularly racist. Nor do I feel that it is particularly sexist. As I mentioned earlier, the Viera are a diverse race of people. Even though the race seems to have originated in a heavily wooded area of Ivalice and has developed ears to hear the semi-magical “voice of the forest,” many Viera do not live in the woods and consider their ears as nothing more than mere decoration. In the case of the Viera in general, this makes a sexist equation between woman and nature, or woman and mysticism, or woman and emotion, difficult. In the specific case of Fran, who is an engineer and pilot, such an equation is utterly non-applicable. Moreover, even though the player may fetishize Fran, Final Fantasy XII does not. Not only is Fran significantly older and more mature than any of the other playable characters, but she is the object of no one’s sexual attraction, and even her relationship with her male partner Balthier is characterized as friendly yet professional.

The game makes it hard to draw sexist conclusions based on any of its female characters either in terms of plot or gameplay. Ashe, the character around whom the game’s plot revolves, is a princess, but she is less concerned with love than she is with political strategy, international alliances, and the consequences of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Ashe comes pre-equipped with a sword; but, if the player decides to make her a spell-caster instead of a melee fighter, there are no consequences. Likewise, although Fran comes pre-equipped with a bow, the player can choose to make her a two-handed weapon-wielding tank of a melee fighter.

As in many earlier games in the Final Fantasy series (including Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy VIII), gender bears absolutely no relevance to fighting ability in Final Fantasy XII. The player builds each player’s abilities though a device called the “license grid,” which is the same for all playable characters, regardless of gender. Furthermore, a character’s base statistics (for values like attack power and physical defense) are dependent on his or her equipment, the selection of which is also non-specific to gender. Men can be healers dependent on magic, and women can wield battle axes larger than they are.

In other words, there is nothing about Fran’s character or fighting capacity that is innate to her race or gender, save her revealing costume. The clothing of the game’s other two female characters, Ashe and Penelo, is similarly racy, but so too is the clothing of the game’s three male characters. This point brings me to an important twist in my argument about the fetishization and sexism inherent in the female characters of Final Fantasy – are male characters not fetishized and subject to sexism in exactly the same way?

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Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Three)

It can be argued that all of the characters in Final Fantasy VII are amalgamations of popular character tropes. One of the most important and popular characters from the game, Aeris, comes dangerously close to many of the various tropes identified with a Mary Sue. For example, the short paragraph of text in the game’s manual describes her as “mysteriously beautiful,” she has an exotic name, she has an usual and dramatic back story, she’s exceptionally talented in a wide variety of areas and possesses rare powers, she is the last of her race, all of game’s characters (even the markedly antisocial ones) adore her, she is brave, cheerful, and incorruptible, she is too pure for this earth and sacrifices herself to save everyone, and her only flaws, innocence and naivety, are far from damning. I am not trying to suggest that Aeris in fact is a Mary Sue character, or even that Mary Sue characters are necessarily a bad thing. What I am trying to suggest is that the character receives a very sympathetic portrayal and occasionally seems to good to be true.

No matter how close Aeris comes to a Mary Sue, she can never be a true Sue, as she is neither a writer nor a reader stand-in. That particular role belongs to Cloud, a confused and lonely young man who just happens to have a bigger sword than anyone else. It’s difficult not to sympathize with Cloud as he wins countless battles, runs up endless flights of stairs, snowboards, rides a huge motorcycle, cross-dresses, discovers his forgotten past, wins his revenge from the psychopath who torched his hometown, and is praised and admired by almost everyone in the game’s cast. At his core, though, Cloud is emotionally vulnerable and just needs someone to comfort and understand him.

That someone, for the first half of the game, is Aeris. Unless the player is armed with a cheat sheet of responses to in-game dialog, Final Fantasy VII sets Aeris up to be Cloud’s love interest. Aeris’s many attractive qualities serve to make her mid-game death more dramatically effective, of course, but they also serve to make her a more desirable partner for the player-protagonist. In this sense, then, she is what I might call a male-generated Mary Sue. She is not everything that the player wants to be, but everything that the player wants to be with. In other words, she is a perfect romantic partner, someone who is strong and kind and beautiful but still unconditionally attracted to the dorky male hero. Is the strength of such a female character truly empowering when it only serves to bolster the ego and libido of the player-protagonist?

Actually, quite a few female gamers have declared that yes, it is empowering. Over-rated though it may or may not be, Final Fantasy VII brought an extraordinary number of new players to the franchise with the richness and depth of its storytelling, world building, and gameplay. Many of these new players were female. As I mentioned earlier, although we can now say that it’s misleading to think of the majority of video game players as male, that stereotype wasn’t so far from the truth in 1997, the year that Final Fantasy VII was released during the early years of the Playstation gaming console. Female players were attracted to the game both by the burgeoning mainstream popularity of gaming and by the presence of female characters who were more than guns and boobs on a remote-controlled stick. Many female gamers in my generation grew up with Aeris and Tifa, and we saw these characters as much more than Cloud’s love interests – we saw them as real people, with real personalities. We also saw them as role models in a way that would have been difficult with the extremely limited dialog of earlier characters like Rydia.

Aeris may have been too good to be true, but she had thousands of lines of dialog that at least made her seem real to the player. Moreover, her dialog was not merely ego-reinforcement for the player-protagonist. Aeris kept secrets, and she had her own set of motivations that never became entirely clear until after her death. The character knew things that she did not share with the player-protagonist, and she expressed emotions that were not directly related to the player-protagonist or to the development of the game’s story. In other words, she had interiority.

Final Fantasy VII also passes the Bechdel Test in that Aeris is friends with Tifa, and the pair on multiple occasions talks about things other than Cloud. Tifa is herself an interesting character. Although her character design is all legs and chest, and although her fighting style seems tailor-made to show off her tight shirt and short shirt (witness her victory pose at the end of every successful battle), she has much more dialog than Aeris, and she is arguably a much darker character.

After the Shinra power company destroys her village and covers up the operation, she moves to the city of the company’s global headquarters, where she opens a bar that will serve as a base for a terrorist resistance movement. Throughout the game she is conscious of the human cost of terrorist activity, as well as the consequences of shutting down the world’s major source of electrical power. She must also navigate the guilt she feels at having bullied Cloud as a child, the confusion she feels regarding his amnesia surrounding their shared past, and the jealousy that she begins to feel toward Aeris. Yes, Tifa’s huge boobs are on constant display, and yes, the camera looks up her skirt when Cloud saves her from falling at the end of the game, but a new generation of female players were able to see past this and sympathize with Tifa as a complex character. Although there are countless fan works depicting the seduction and rape of both Tifa and Aeris, there are arguably many more that explore the aspirations and anxieties of the characters outside of sexual or romantic relationships.

Female players therefore brought with them a female gaze. This gaze not only transformed female characters from objects to subjects, but it also turned an objectifying lens on the male characters. These new female fans took advantage of the fledgling world wide web to form communities with other fans with whom they could discuss topics such as whether Cloud’s nemesis Sephiroth was even more attractive than Cloud. The international character of the internet also exposed Western fans to the work (and particularly the artwork) of Japanese fans, and soon Cloud was no longer in a romantic relationship with Aeris or Tifa but rather intimately involved with the evil military leader Sephiroth. For a generation of female fans too young for Star Trek, then, Final Fantasy VII was a gateway into alternative readings of popular texts. To give it due credit, the game has a story and cast of characters deep enough to actively encourage the female gaze that helped to make the game so popular. Although the vagaries of corporate marketing decisions are beyond me, I can only assume that Square quickly connected the unprecedented success of Final Fantasy VII to its popularity with gamers of both genders, since each successive game in the franchise has featured stronger and more developed female characters – as well as a colorful sprinkling of homoerotic tension between male characters.

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Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Two)

Anyone who has played the first three Final Fantasy games, either on the NES or as reincarnated through their PSP and DS remakes, knows that there isn’t a great deal of character development involved. Male and female characters are more or less interchangeable; the gender of any given character is no more than window dressing for an essentially sexless data animal. Final Fantasy IV, the series’s first installment for the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, is considered groundbreaking because it is the first of the games to feature a cast of characters with unique abilities, personalities, and backstories. The game follows the exploits of the dark knight Cecil, who has to (a) come to terms with the fact that he is working for an evil king, (b) overcome the darkness in his heart, (c) gain the holy sword necessary to fight evil, and (d) fly to the moon to defeat his evil brother and the dark force possessing him.

Cecil, who is your party’s fallback melee fighter, is supported by Rosa, one of those selfless white mage types who will do anything for Cecil but is all but useless in battle (at least until she learns the attack spell Holy). Despite all of the transformative and empowering fan work that has sprung up around her over the past twenty years, in the original game, Rosa was really nothing more than the love interest of Cecil and his rival Kain. Your party must repeatedly fight to save her from various conundrums, like fainting in the desert and being kidnapped. Much more interesting than Rosa, who is the proverbial sheath for the hero’s sword, is the summoner character Rydia.

Rydia is a young summoner whose village is unwittingly destroyed by Cecil. Since she has nowhere else to go after the entire race of summoners is killed, she accompanies your party until she is spirited away by a summon creature, Leviathan, to the city of summon creatures deep under the earth. When Cecil ends up traveling underground and finds himself in dire straights, he is rescued by Rydia, who has aged more than ten years while living in a different flow of time. Rydia is a valuable asset to your party, wielding whips that inflict paralysis and various other status ailments, as well as battle-ending summons and black magic so powerful that its use is depicted as killing other mages.

Since Rydia is so useful as a playable character, the player is given a strong incentive to go on several difficult side quests that serve no other purpose than to make her more powerful. The player therefore has something of a first-person investment in her, which is strengthened by her moving backstory. This backstory provides both a juxtaposition and an alternative to Cecil’s own. Both Cecil and Rydia are orphans who were raised to be masters of their respective powers, and both must make a choice regarding whom they will forgive and whom they will protect. Unlike Rosa, the adult Rydia does not need saving, and she is not interested in romantic love. It would seem that she is therefore not an object but rather a subject, a female hero who stands on equal footing with the male hero.

Unfortunately, there is the issue of her costuming. While the two primary male characters, Cecil and Kain, are allowed armor, Rydia is clothed in leggings, oversized arm warmers, a leotard, and high heels. Besides not being very practical for battle, this outfit is highly sexualized. As a result, fanworks from both Japan and America have cast the character as a porn star who is raped by not only Cecil and Kain but also by her summon monsters, a dubious honor that is not shared by Rosa.

This pornographic treatment is not merely a result of Rydia’s sexy costume (or of Rule 34), however. There is also an air of innocence and a whiff of child-in-a-woman’s-body about her that invite male protection and exploitation. While Cecil and Kain are depicted as undergoing emotional trails on the road to character development, Rydia has an almost complete lack of interiority. If the adult Rydia ever faces any doubt over her abilities or conflict over the fact that Cecil killed her entire family, for example, the player doesn’t hear about it. Rydia is magical and mystical and unknown; she is a blank slate in an appealing costume onto which the presumably male player can project his fantasies of exotic and mysterious femininity. Moreover, although Rydia’s magic is undeniably powerful, the game’s strict MP limitations ensure that she is never more than a support character in the vast majority of battles, an unfortunate caveat that also applies to Rosa.

In both the gameplay and narrative aspects of Final Fantasy IV, then, female characters are associated with magic, innate ability, dependence on men, and cheerful self-sacrifice, while male characters are associated with physical power, training and skill, and development toward emotional independence. The player is strongly encouraged to identify with the male characters and their personal struggles. The male is the subject, and the female is the object. The male is known and powerful, and the woman is unknown and mystical. These are popular fantasy tropes, and they are not unique to Final Fantasy IV, whose story is powerful and appealing partially because it makes effective use of these tropes.

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