As some of you are probably aware, I attended CONvergence, a sci-fi-and-fantasy-focused convention held in Bloomington Minnesota, this past weekend (if anyone reading this discovered my blog through my numerous attempts to self-advertise while there, I welcome you and hope that you enjoy your stay!). I started attending the convention six or seven years ago, and it has long been a couple of well-needed days of relaxation and fun for me. The past couple of years, however, I�ve delved into providing some of the programming; while I�m not yet to the point of no return as I am with Anime Detour (I did twelve panels over three days this past April, sheesh), I find that I have more fun if there�s a little bit of structure to my weekend and I also enjoy speaking about subjects that are near-and-dear to my heart.
The first panel I sat was called �Heroines of Anime and Manga.� Because female characters and the ways in which they�re represented is a subject that tends to come up quite a bit here at the blog, I figured it was something about which I�d have a lot to say. I was happy to find that the audience also had a lot of interesting and valuable discussion to offer.
In 2011 I did a panel at Anime Detour entitled �Women in Anime and Manga.� At the end of the panel, the other panelists and I talked about the state of anime fandom in regards to gender inclusiveness. While the other two panelists� experiences and impressions were mostly positive, some of you could probably guess that mine weren�t quite so rosy. There is a large discrepancy between the attitudes that one can find in denizens of �face-to-face� fandom (like conventions), and the wider, wilder internet-based fandom. While I have a small, friendly community of commenters here at S1E1, my general experience tends to be one of caution and anticipation of the next troll to wander by and spew vitriol at me. I have actually been nervous to post certain reviews here at the website because of the anticipated backlash (which sometimes materializes but other times doesn�t). There are a lot of people posting on the internet who feel that the anonymity of the format entitles them to act abusively towards others, and I have been on the receiving end of that several times.
On the other hand, people who engage with fandom on a physical level are, obviously, already willing to shed the protection that the internet provides and speak to others face-to-face. I find that attending conventions helps to restore a little bit of my faith in fandom, because I get to meet people through doing and attending panels that actually have manners and are willing to show respect. The point I�m trying to make is that I would most likely not want to attempt the same discussion I had with other fans at this panel over the internet; in fact, the thought is a little bit frightening, especially considering some of the subject matter that came up.
So what was it that we discussed? Obviously the overriding topic was that of heroines, namely what attributes make a good one. I was very encouraged by the various criteria offered by the other panelists and the audience. My personal opinion is that a heroine (or protagonist) is defined by the strength of her ability to make her own choices and act upon them. This, to me, is something which applies to all types of characters from all genres of entertainment. A decisive character could be a warrior, a mother, or a school girl; personal agency isn�t limited to those who earn their freedom by the sword.
Character development was also a big topic, especially as it relates to the mo� method of developing characters (which is to say that one of the traits of so-called �mo� anime� is the fact that it doesn�t really develop them at all). I was glad that one of the audience members brought up the subject, because I think that the mo� phenomenon is one of the more interesting anime-specific developments in the portrayal of women in anime, even if it happens to be a development that I don�t like. I talked a bit about the �post-mo�� style of storytelling that�s cropped up recently, which takes the expectations an anime fan may have about characters in a series based on those characters� mo� archetypes and turns those expectations on their head, whether through story development or character development. I�ve talked about this before in relation to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, but the same could be said about Ano Hana (which was also mentioned), Sora no Woto or even Toradora! to some extent.
A woman in the audience mentioned this, and I agreed with her, that it was refreshing that, several minutes into an hour-long panel, not one person in the room had mentioned being �kick-ass� as a requirement for being a heroic female character. While not directly anime-related, the recent blow-up regarding the character Lara Croft and the new video game which portrays her backstory (to summarize, the strong way in which she carries herself in the previous games is supposedly the result of being near-raped, an occurrence which takes places as a quick time event � this caused many people, including myself, to get very angry) demonstrates the conflicted way that heroic women are often portrayed in media. My personal issue with the �kick-ass� trope is that it�s so often undermined by the requirement of sexual violence towards the character, or an overabundance of fanservice which serves to turn a physically strong, capable character into an object of sexual gratification for the viewer. It�s also problematic in that it presents only one type of �strength� as having any validity, and it�s one that�s taken wholesale from stereotypical images of masculinity � it can be interpreted as suggesting that only a traditionally male form of power has any validity, when both women and men of many different temperaments and physical skill levels could be seen as having a certain strength. (This is not to suggest that women who do battle are somehow invalidated as characters, only that they are not the only type of �strong� character deserving of respect).
One of the final major points we touched on was the problem of certain characters being too �perfect.� It�s true that many of the characters who I and others cling to are idealized; one audience member mentioned Balsa from Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit as almost being too heroic, despite the fact that she has a fairly substantial backstory. My opinion on that was perhaps too complicated to relay at the panel itself (I�d been running on little sleep and managed to make it to the convention a mere twenty minutes before this panel, so my brain was a bit fried at the time), but the gist is that I think that I�d be more inclined to be critical of so-called �perfection� in characters if there were simply a larger variety of female characters in anime worth talking about. Ideally, I�d love every female protagonist to be nuanced, with realistic strengths and flaws. In reality, I think it�s good that we women are getting to the point where we can have our own power fantasies without feeling guilty about it. Balsa may be idealized, but in a way she�s like Superman has been to little boys for decades � too good to exist, but a beneficial fantasy and someone whose ideals are worth attempting to emulate. As time goes on, I�ll expect there to be a few more Leslie Knopes from which to choose, but for now, having characters that are strong and wise and admirable is a good start.
I�m always glad when I get a chance to sit on these types of panels, because I�m consistently delighted by the insight offered by other fans. Meeting these fans in person lets me believe, at least for a little while, that sexism in media is surmountable and that anime fandom isn�t just comprised of a bunch of trolls whose one joy in life is to threaten people via the internet. I find that there�s a pretty big problem with people getting fed up and leaving the anime fandom, whether it be because of lack of perceived choice in the type of anime available, or disconnect with the more vocal contingent of fans. Hopefully connecting with people face-to-face is one way that I can help illustrate that, in spite of its numerous problematic elements, this is a fandom that all sorts of people can enjoy.
I�d like to give a shout-out to my co-panelists, Caroline Symcox and Scott Jamison, for being awesome!
Next time, I get the distinct feeling that I might be talking about a certain pair of foul-mouthed, perverted angels AND saying complimentary things (who�d have thought?).