Anime can be questionable. Like, extremely questionable. It’s not always like that, but more than enough happens to be premium Don’t Show This To Your Parents content. To some being mindful of this comes with a sense of responsibility to condemn messy works. To see them as not only problematic, but also morally wrong. To tell people that they shouldn’t like the things they like if they do questionable things. So I guess we need to talk about why it’s okay to like anime despite all the crappy stuff it does.
To do that I’m gonna go on a long tangent about media and problematic content in general. First it should be acknowledged that media is complicated. Like, SUPER complicated. There’s so many caveats with intent and interpretation and values. You don’t see things the way the author sees them, and the author doesn’t see things the way their fans do. That makes it incredibly hard to condemn works of fiction. People will disagree about the existence of a concerning thing, or exactly how bad it is. Heck, they might just have a different threshold for crappy content.
(DISCLAIMER: THIS DISCUSSION OF TERRIBLE THINGS IN FICTIONAL STORIES DOESN’T APPLY TO PEOPLE WHO ACTIVELY DO TERRIBLE THINGS IN REAL LIFE. SORRY NOT SORRY WOODY ALLEN AND DIRECTOR OF RECOVERY OF AN MMO JUNKIE)
So let’s say a work does something undeniably bad. There’s probably some funny smelling people who’ll defend it, but mostly people are disgusted. How do we talk about that? And to what extent should we hold creators and fans accountable? Like everything else… it’s complicated. For starters fictional stories are often collaborative, so it’s usually tricky to pin an idea to a single person. Assuming we can, however, can we also assume that it was a conscious decision? Likely not. Stories sometimes reveal things about creators that they didn’t even know about themselves. Things they’ve done by accident, or things they genuinely don’t know are wrong. In which case what they’ve done is still shitty, and any harmful implications should definitely be called out. But they’re not inherently bad people. They have the ability to grow and question themselves, and many creators do exactly that over the course of their careers.
After considering all that let’s say this creator is still writing stuff you find reprehensible. By this point it makes a little more sense to think they’re a terrible person, but does liking their work make someone a terrible person? Still no. Mind you there’s plenty of stuff I morally despise, but the difference between me and someone who likes that stuff isn’t a binary matter of values. You can believe a creator is awful and still think they know how to craft great stories. You can have disagreements with some ideas and really strong agreements with others. There’s so many things that go into liking a text.
But what does this have to do with anime specifically? Besides all the things I’ve said there’s also concerns with anime being a pulp medium from a vastly different culture to the west. What we deem as problematic could be commonplace to the sensibilities of Japanese people. That absolutely doesn’t make it immune to criticism. I know first hand that their popular ideas on gender roles and overtime work and a lot of social justice causes are sometimes pretty upsetting. But one thing is for sure: You’re not going to be the foreign saviour who educates the masses. Dispel that idea entirely. Thinking of yourself as the enlightened woke warrior looking down on Japan’s distasteful media is itself problematic. And criticisms of questionable content should come with the understanding that Japan is its own complex society.
Even then, anime is still seen as a problematic niche in Japan. Not in the same way, but a lot of people are very much aware that suspect shit goes on in some of these cartoons. One thing that unanimously tends raise an eyebrow, both in Japan and elsewhere, is the prevalence of young girls. Teenage girls especially. Why are there so many stories about the lives of high school girls? Why are these teenage girl characters condensed to marketable tokens? Why are they constantly sexualised? And yeah, it’s hard to blame people for questioning those things. The outward fetishising of young girls is so pervasive that it’s hard not to be concerned. But like I said earlier, media is SUPER COMPLICATED. Without discounting the truth that the anime industry has some pretty scummy folks, along with the truth that more than a few anime fans enable it to be scummy, people respond to media in a diverse number of ways.
For instance there’s plenty of queer people who watch crap tons of anime. In the same way that (some) black Americans found power in blaxploitation we see queer anime fans build identity from exploitative texts. They know the same sex shipping is probably queerbait. They know the crossdressing characters are fetishised for not looking like their assigned gender. But they also know queer people don’t get a lot of representation, and make do with what they can. Problematic representation is noted and reconfigured into a means of self expression. And that’s pretty awesome. I’d definitely prefer actually good representations, but it goes to show that there can be meaning in embracing disagreeable things. Because sometimes they can be way more empowering than they ever intended to be.
Honestly, I think most anime creators and fans are pretty sincere. I think creators want to make good works, and I think fans invest their time and energy into anime because they earnestly like it. That’s to say that some people think those shows about teenage girls are genuinely good. Not because they’re obsessed with cute girls, but because they’re invested in stories and characters and craft. Y’know, the things that YOU like in stories. And that’s okay. Your mileage may vary on those anime, and that’s also okay. This is true for other kinds of problematic content in anime as well, not just cute girls. I’m not telling you that you have to like or excuse something that makes you uncomfortable. What I am saying is that you should let people like things, and you should assume that they like those things for honest reasons.
Anime is problematic as heck. But it also brings joy and excitement and occasionally even empowerment. Those experiences are valid, and more importantly they can coexist with our misgivings. So enjoy your quirky cartoons, and let others enjoy their quirky cartoons.
Did you like this piece? If you wanted to commission me to write about something message me on Twitter @BristleBristle. It can be almost any TV show or film or anything of that sort! You can find more details here.
2 thoughts on “Anime is Problematic, And That’s Okay”
I agree with your argument but I think it would benefit from some more concrete examples. “Anime is problematic” is a pretty broad-stroke statement that applies in very different ways to, say, K-On, Golgo 13, and Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid. (Or fine, Zero no Tsukaima, since that last one is pretty much just pornographic.) I think you could get a lot of mileage out of looking into examples like these more deeply.
I really appreciate that you note that applying Western ideas to Japanese cultural artifacts is problematic in itself. I think this could be taken further—perhaps a part of why we see these works as so problematic is because they’re problematic in a noticeable, unfamiliar way, as opposed to the familiar ones we Western viewers encounter all the time and have become sort of inured to. (Can we talk about the sexualization of young girls without mentioning Game of Thrones, or Olympic figure skating, or the entire fashion modeling industry? Any of which might also have something of value to offer despite the downsides.)
I also think it might be beneficial to develop, or at least point to, some ideas about why problematic media might be bad. Is it because of how it shapes our standards in media? How it encourages us to see the world? How it normalizes problematic real-world behavior in others? Or just presents social stereotypes that we feel uncomfortable with?
But there’s also ways that the problematic assumptions or genre conventions of the medium as a whole create pressure on otherwise stellar works—take Fullmetal Alchemist, here’s a work written by a woman, generally serious in nature, with several well-developed female characters and that generally scores well in terms of representation, but for whatever reason there’s still a need in the comic moments to make Roy Mustang talk about putting his female colleagues in miniskirts. That’s the joke we get?
Anyway, I dig what you’re doing here. Thanks for writing this and sharing it.
This is a great essay. The thing is… no media is “unproblematic”. Name me a show and I can tell you 10 reasons why it’s “problematic”. Black Panther? Problematic. They cut off the gay romance etc etc etc