I've spent the last couple of columns talking about one half of the Anarchy Sisters, so I think it's high time that we took a closer look at the other. While I am an unapologetic Panty fan, that in no way means that I dislike Stocking!
Anarchy Stocking is much like her sister in a lot of ways. She's got a foul mouth and a bit of a nasty streak, and her opinion of the task that's laid before her as a fallen angel is similarly flippant. She's got her own sexual appetite (though she keeps that under wraps much more effectively than Panty), and she's afflicted with her own "vice" - a very strong, almost consuming affection for cookies, cakes, and other sweet confections. It's this affinity for sugar which serves as a jumping-off point for an episode that, while still highly problematic in many ways, does manage to squeak by with a fairly empowering message about crash dieting and being happy with one's body.
Episode 4A, "Diet Syndrome," begins with Stocking enjoying a slice of Whitey-White's special roll-cake. Panty arrives and begins to tease her sister, warning her that too much snacking will lead to weight gain. Stocking tells her to buzz off, but later discovers that she's gained a Kilogram. This discovery turns into an obsession as Stocking begins exercising her life away and eschewing any and all sugary foods, but no matter what she does, she can't shake the extra weight. When her efforts turn out to be for naught, Stocking flies into a rage and binges on all the Whitey-White cakes she can get her hands on, then wakes up the next morning several times her normal size. This all turns out to be the work of a ghost, whose purpose is to cause weight gain in the female citizens of Daten City. When the sisters dispatch the ghost, Stocking (and presumably the others) return to their normal sizes.
I'll be the first to admit that there are some rather glaring problems with this premise. The most obvious of these is the concrete linking of body weight with the amount a person eats. While diet and activity level can certainly be reflected in some people's body sizes, there are also people whose "set points" are simply not affected very much no matter how much or how little food they consume or what their activity level is. Secondly, and this is something that's certainly not limited to this series or even this form of media, this episode seems to place a moral judgment on being fat by linking fatness directly with the ghost's evil plot. It's clear that the primary goal the characters have during this episode is to avoid any conceivable weight gain by defeating the ghost that's making everyone fat. That said, things aren't quite as black-and-white as they may seem, and the episode isn't limited to the presentation of a "thin=good and fat=bad" dichotomy.
While much of the staging might be problematic, some of the best parts of this episode crop up within the dialog and the interactions between Panty and Stocking, where the message proves to be more nuanced. I think one of the things that's particularly noteworthy is that Stocking doesn't really seem to care much about her weight until Panty starts to bother her about it. While this might seem relatively innocuous, I personally think that this is extremely perceptive and very telling about the way in which body issues can be insidiously introduced to women from both other women and popular culture. This is old news to most of us, but just to reiterate for the sake of this article, culture and media can often seem like an unending string of weight-related advertisements, with commercials peddling endless variants of exercise machines and weight-loss pills and television series and magazines poking fun at movie stars who lack the perfect "bikini body." Frankly, the only way to entirely avoid the reach of this junk is to lock oneself inside the house, turn off the television and computer, and hide underneath the covers.
If that isn't bad enough, there's the added social pressure that women tend to put on one-another. I'm of the firm belief that women are taught, perhaps not actively but at least by example (parental and, more largely, societal), to constantly compare ourselves to other women and to provide (often unwelcome) criticism to one-another, especially in regards to weight. This kind of criticism, "you shouldn't eat that," or "at least I'm not as heavy as her," is something that I suspect many people aren't aware that they're actually saying, but it can have very ill effects on the self-confidence of everyone involved. Call me paranoid, but I'm often convinced that this is exactly what some people out there want; when a woman feels self-conscious about her love handles, it's easy to get her to spend money on something that seems like a "quick fix." When women are taught to spend so much time criticizing and hurting one-another, it's much easier to then sweep in and make broad claims about their fitness to lead, to think, and to have autonomy over their bodies and selves.
This may seem a bit out there, but bear with me. This episode of Panty and Stocking reminded me a bit of a story arc in the (utterly excellent) anime series Mononoke, called "Noppera Bou" ("Faceless One"). In this story arc, a woman named Ochou-san is imprisoned for the murder of her in-laws. We learn as the story progresses that Ochou-san has, her entire life, been the tool of others, first her mother (who marries her off to improve her own financial situation), and then her husband's family, who treat her like little more than a servant. It becomes clear that so many years of oppression have caused Ochou-san's sense of self to become tainted and warped to the point that it's very nearly lost any value, and that the "murder" is the product of a mind having been rendered so completely helpless and resentful that violent fantasy is the only thing over which it has any control. Ochou finally learns that there is no demon haunting her, no mononoke to dispel - the mononoke was herself, a self made to bend to the will of others in search of validation and love rather than allowed to grow and flourish on its own terms.
Once the sisters have defeated their enemy, one of them remarks about the ghost, "I guess she's the manifestation of any woman who's ever had to diet." I personally would alter that a bit, and say that the ghost is the product of every woman who has been made to feel that her only road to worthiness is to diet. The ghost is not only resentful of the diet culture that pervades our lives, but also a reflection of the way in which we're insidiously taught to sabotage others in search of our own false validation. We're taught to cling to this idea that the difference of a few pounds or inches equates to our being a "good" or "bad" person and that an uptick in either is somehow a personal failing. As we learn to hold ourselves to standards that are, for many, unrealistic and impersonal, it's suddenly ourselves that become our own worst enemies.
At the end of the episode, Stocking states that she's not going to "sweat an extra kilo or two," and I think that this is the closest it gets to providing a satisfying "moral." While it's overly-simplistic to expect everyone to suddenly throw away years of emotional baggage and stop giving a hoot what other people think about them, within the bite-sized world of this anime series, it seems like an appropriate way to resolve the arc of the story. In fact, it's because Stocking runs the gamut of emotion over the course of eleven minutes or so that it becomes much easier to see our own society's mistaken obsession with weight control reflected within the episode.
This episode is the perfect example of the (occasionally infuriating) way that this anime series can both miss the mark in some ways, and hit the ball out of the park in others. Stocking herself is, much like her sister, another manifestation of contradictions, at various times both snotty and sensitive. Next time we'll look into more of the ways that she can be seen as an interesting, complex character, even as the series itself can be seen as foul-mouthed and silly.