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Anime: Gender Roles and Representations

Updated on June 27, 2015


  1. Introduction to Anime
  2. Japanese Gender Culture
  3. Fanservice and Lolicon
  4. Characteristics of Shonen/ Shoujo Anime
  5. Case Study- Sword Art Online
  6. Case Study- Kill LA Kill
  7. Transgender and Androgyny
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
  10. Extra Links to subject

Introduction to Anime

Anime is short for Japanese animation and features hand drawn or computer animation. It is highly recognizable in its style of drawing and its outlandish (to western viewers) themes and plots. It is visually, thematically and creatively imaginative. Anime is not a genre, rather a medium and Anime can be in any genre such as Horror, comedy, Sci-fi, futuristic...etc. Most anime too is adopted from Manga, Japanese comics, so for the purpose of this Hub, its important to acknowledge that the examination of Anime will also be examining the original Manga series too. For this study, I will be looking at mainstream Shonen and Shouji Anime, basically anime that caters to teenage boys (Shonen) and teenage Girls (shouji). Although they cater directly to these demographics, people of various ages, gender, and ethnicity enjoy them and the Anime Fan community is immensely large.

I will be examining, in particular but not solely, two mainstream Anime series, namely 'Sword Art Online' (2012, Tomohiko Itō), and 'Kill la Kill' (2013, Hiroyuki Imaishi).

Japanese Gender Culture

Historically Japan has idealized male dominance and female submissiveness, as with nearly every other country, and although this is legally not an existing structure it still emanates throughout Japanese Society. Women were historically viewed as possessions and even child bearing servants, viewed as valuable only for their female capabilities of Mothering. Although women had their restrictions, men too were restricted in the expectations of their conformity to what society deemed acceptable. Masculinity and strength are heavily instilled into Japanese men as important lessons, just as submissiveness and passivity is engraved into women. Japanese society is governed by the code of etiquette (expectations of social behavior) which include everything from bathing, to bowing and gift giving/ receiving. This portrays the importance of respect in Japanese culture.

During WWII, women's roles shifted slightly, as with other countries involved, it was the women who had to pick up the work in factories when the men were drafted to war. The men drafted were then taught to fight with distorted ideas of patriotism, almost to the point of Suicide. After the WWII occupation gender roles were abruptly changed in Japan as discrimination based on gender was forbidden. Women are still controlling the household, allowing men to devote themselves to their work. however, This is changing as more women are starting careers and although the wage gap and high level positions for women are still a concern, it is progressively changing, albeit at a slow pace.

An example of Lolicon character
An example of Lolicon character

Fanservice and Lolicon

Women, or more accurately, the female body is overtly sexualized in Japanese culture, and society has long been accepting of what Western countries might deem inappropriate; the distribution and consumption of sexual material based on young girls. Where western countries have mainly utilized the adult female body as a marketing tool, Japan see's 12 to 16 year old girls, called 'Junior Idols' taking on this role. Junior Idols represent purity and chastity, yet are depicted in a highly sexualized manner with DVD's being released that frame these girls around adult sexual fantasies. This fascination with youth and innocence has materialized from what is known as 'The Lolita Complex', a sexual attraction to young girls. This has manifested itself into everyday Japanese society where women wear over sized bows, frills and ribbons to emulate the 'Lolicon' or 'Junior Idol' appearance. Lolicon is a term used to describe an attraction to young girls, and in Anime and Manga it is wholly normal to portray young girls in a sexual manner. Often this practice doesn't shame the characters that fall victim to this harassment, instead creating events where the character is not held culpable; falling in a manner that allows 'Panty Shots', Gusts of wind blowing up their skirts etc. And then there's the more direct harassment usually perpetrated by the token 'Pervert' character who will glare at his victims thus giving way to a cleavage shot, often grab them 'accidentally' or just make sexual innuendo's that are a little to obvious.

This is called 'Fanservice', which describes it exactly, a service to the fans. By placing women in positions of a sexual nature, be it bent over a table, power poses (that places a woman of strength in a provocative yet forceful pose), 'panty shots' (which have the internet littered with montages) or blatant 'accidental' breast grabs, which have nothing to do with the plot, or development of the story, the developers are doing the male fans a service. This too offers an insight into Japanese gender expectations as the reverse barely exists for female viewers. One could argue that the masculine portrayal of heavily muscled men or even the handsome, smart characters are a service to female viewers, however there is a crucial difference in these depictions. Firstly, these male characters are not constantly placed in the role of Sexual prop, there are no shots from behind that exaggerate their bodies proportions, nor are there 'accidental' groin visuals. Second, the male characters are never placed in situations that would enhance their physical sexuality. For female characters bathing shots, swimsuit montages and hovering over their bodies is a constant, regardless of age. This does not exist for male characters.

Shoujo and Shonen examples

From 'Freezing'-Shonen Anime
From 'Freezing'-Shonen Anime
from 'Rosario + Vampire'- Shonen Anime
from 'Rosario + Vampire'- Shonen Anime
From 'Love Lab'-Shoujo Anime
From 'Love Lab'-Shoujo Anime
from 'Tamayori More Aggressive' Shoujo Anime
from 'Tamayori More Aggressive' Shoujo Anime

Characteristics of Shonen/ Shoujo Anime

Shonen anime is usually directed towards the young male demographic, however the audience covers most ages. It centers around school boys of the same age, usually around 12 to 14 years old. Its important here to acknowledge why most young anime is based in schools, and it has to do with the immense time students spend on academics even outside of school hours. With young people spending most of their time in school activities, it is not surprising to see such vast amounts of anime taking place in these school settings. The protagonist will also usually be surrounded by girls and the women will always be overly attractive with exaggerated features. It is littered with fanservice, since its directed at males. Normally they begin immature and throughout the story grow to be men. Their journey to become men is what the story is centered around, basically, they are coming of age stories but with action. Examples of Shonen Anime include One Piece, Bleach, Naruto and

Shoujo Anime, or Shojo, is an anime marketed towards a female audience roughly between the ages of 10 and 18. It is almost always romance based, with the story revolving around the female protagonists falling in love and her emotional journey building up to declaring it. They are rarely action based. Some Shoujo anime portrays the idea that female emotional bonds are stronger than that of between a man and woman, yet the plot is still always based around love and personal growth. Shoujo characters themselves are cute, with bigger sparkling eyes, and while they are still frequently fetishized (wearing stereotypically short uniform skirts and high stockings) their bodies are less sexualized than that of Shonen female characters. Innocence, naivety and Cuteness are themes of this kind of anime.

Asuna in original Manga and Anime

A visual montage of Asuna in a  variety of sexual poses.
A visual montage of Asuna in a variety of sexual poses.
The Anime Asuna.
The Anime Asuna.
Asuna as her captor licks her tears.
Asuna as her captor licks her tears.
Asuna as her top if ripped off.
Asuna as her top if ripped off.
all illustrations Courtesy of A-1 Studios and ASCII Media Works.
all illustrations Courtesy of A-1 Studios and ASCII Media Works.

Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is a Shonen Anime, based on the Manga series of the same name. The plot revolves around a boy who along with thousands of other players, has been trapped in a Virtual reality game, with death being a very real consequence of the game. In order to survive the players must fight and win battles on all 100 floors, only then will they be free. Asuna is a character who, when we first meet her, is shaded by a cloak, she is shy and independent. When the protagonist, kirito, asks her to join him in his fighting guild she is first reluctant but eventually joins. From here on out she becomes domesticated, she can cook, she swoons over kirito and they eventually end up adopting a young child, allowing her to fulfill the motherly role. Even though he slowly gathers more and more women into his harem, she spends most of her time worrying about his survival and how they can each help him. Suna's domestication could be seen as a reflection of the existing attitude that women should leave their careers one they are married, to become full time mothers.

It is also a story that is filled with Fanservice, even in the original Manga series (see illustrations). The story itself has proven itself a much more dangerous landscape for the female characters than it is for the male however. Where once viewers saw Asuna as strong and independent, she is soon turned into the helpless Damsel In Distress, a frequently utilized trope that allows two things: One for the male protagonist to prove both his strength (of character) and his love for the Damsel, and two, to create a space for the use of the 'Pervert' character. The man who kidnaps Asuna hides her in an over sized birds cage, in provocative clothing and threatens sexual assault while actually touching her body without her consent. These actions are meant to portray the pure evilness of the character, since murder and death are already central to the plot, sexual assault is frequently used to enhance a characters evil personality, however they also serve as a more perverted fanservice. This can be seen in a variety of Anime, where the trope of 'pervert' is used to gain unwanted (by the female) sexual shots, the act of gazing offers shots of cleavage and underwear, but the female with whom the attention is given is not reciprocating. This is what I refer to as the 'Perverted Gaze'. It allows viewers to see the characters in a sexual manner, but without their permission, and ultimately fulfills the peeping tom fantasy. For Asuna the attention is completely unwanted, yet her captor licks her face, touches her body and the camera closes in on her trembling, crying face, acting as an accomplice to her assault. Indeed licking her tears is a way of letting viewers know just how perverse he is, but the very positioning of Asuna's body as he rips her top off is extremely sexualized, showing little sympathy and respect for the character on behalf of the production.

Asuna eventually manages to escape the birdcage but her punishment for this when she is soon found results is a scene much worse than her first sexual assault, indeed, tentacles and bondage become a theme of this assault, serving as yet another humiliation for the character who then must wait for Kirito to save her.

Sword Art Online also reflects existing attitudes towards men and what is expected of them. Themes of bravery, heroics and respect are hugely important in Anime. Kirito is an example of this, in his constant knight and shining armor role and his determination to survive. This is not enough though for most male protagonists, as the idea that everyone they love must be saved by them is constantly spoken of. Kirito time and again goes up against people of power but never wavers, always assured that his mission to save the people he cares about is a righteous one. This gives him power over his opponent.

The same idea can be seen in 'Bleach', Ichigo, the protagonist, states numerous times throughout, that he wants to become as powerful as possible in order to save the people he loves, this gives him an edge against his opponents. Both Ichigo and Kirito fight against unspeakably powerful beings, and win every time, due to their bravery, heroic nature, strength both physical and inner, and because they have 'moral rightness' on their side. This is an idea that comes up in anime a lot, and serves as a characteristic of personal growth and maturity. The willingness to give ones life to save another is the fundamental message.

Kill La Kill Uniforms and Suits

Male Uniforms that don't assault the body
Male Uniforms that don't assault the body
Female Uniform assaults the body physically and visually
Female Uniform assaults the body physically and visually
Satsuki's pure suit.
Satsuki's pure suit.

Kill La Kill

Kill la Kill is another Anime rampant with what appears to be fanservice, but with what is actually central to the plot. The story tells of a girl who is trying to find the person who killed her father. She finds a school where the uniforms actually enhance the strength of the person wearing it, and challenges the student council president, who appears to know something about the murder, to a fight. She loses however but soon finds a suit apparently built by her own father which gives her similar yet better abilities. The suit itself is a cause for concern, since it has the ability to over her nipples and groin only, negating it's title of Armour. From here the difference between plain fanservice and actual plot blurs slightly. Since fanservice is something that does not contribute to plot, and Ryuko's suit is central it is difficult to title the underwear and cleavage shot as mere fanservice.

However, the suit offers much more than simple provocative glances at these body parts, it gives the audience a glimpse into what can only be described as a virginity metaphor. Her father made the suit for her, but in order to work it must clasp on to her skin and be offered blood in order to make Ryuko strong. In fact when she is first introduced to the suit, the scene resembles sexual assault in a very realistic way. She backs away as the suit launches itself as her, rips off her clothes and even telling her to just take it and stop being afraid. It takes her by force and she ends up having to literally wear her shame for the entirety of the show. Ryuko often states that she does not want to wear the suit, but still begrudgingly puts up with unwanted male gazes, the perverted gaze and even sometime the female gaze. She is placed forever in the position of Sexual object. Her suit is thus named 'Blood' which offers obvious suggestions of the loss of virginity and innocence, which could be why they made the suit scene appear closer to assault: the dominance of a female by a man (this time her own father), the taking of her chastity.

Another female character who appears in a less victimized role is that of Satsuki, who actually wants to wear the suit for its abilities. Some argue that her determination and activeness in searching for suit empowers this character, however viewers soon learn that she too was a victim of childhood assault, perpetuating the idea that a woman needs to be objectified and violated in order to find strength. This search also begs the question: Is objectifying yourself really empowering?. Satsuki has her own suit, similar to that of Ryoku, but white instead of black and red. Her Suits name is 'Purity' lending itself to the Virginity metaphor as she actively pursues the 'Blood' suit in order to shed her own pure suit.

Yumichika from 'Bleach'
Yumichika from 'Bleach'
Ruka from 'Steins Gate'
Ruka from 'Steins Gate'

Transgender And Androgyny

Anime and Manga appears more accepting of Transgender characters, but not by much. Vast amounts of Anime include Gay and Transgender characters although examining the way in which they are portrayed offers more insight into exactly how accepting this form is. There is a long list of characters that identify as gay or transgender, yet they are stereotyped to comedic effects and once established they tend to fulfill the comedy role in the series. In fact utilizing these characters for comic relief purposes only is quite common, as seen in 'Steins Gate' with the character of Ruka, a character who appears to all as female yet is actually male. While this character is important to the progression of the plot, and his gender identity is an actual issue raised, there are also some underlying jokes that surround his identity. Shikaru the protagonist is a comedic character in itself, and when viewers are first introduced to Ruka through Shikaru we are told he is "delicate as an orchid, fair as a cherry blossom, a personification of feminine grace, and a dude. Tall as a willow, slender as a reed...a dude. ...Ruka, is a dude". This statement is played for comedy, as a way of juxtaposing the idea's of what a man is with the representation of a female character. Even the structure of the sentences imply there is something fundamentally wrong and at the same time funny with the picture presented.

'Bleach' can be seen to do the same. The character of Yumichika has obvious feminine qualities, including his appearance and interest in looking beautiful. In a battle scene against a giant man by the name of Charlotte, this comedic effect is enhanced through the use of stereotyping and flamboyance. This over the top comedy takes from the severity of the situation though, which would not normally happen with other characters. In fact, other battle scenes include over the top bravado, epic musical scores and masculine fighting, quite the opposite to Yumichika's fight sequence.

Envy from 'Fullmetal Alchemist' is an androgynous character.
Envy from 'Fullmetal Alchemist' is an androgynous character.
Misa from 'Death Note' is portrayed as somewhat psychotic.
Misa from 'Death Note' is portrayed as somewhat psychotic.
Yuno from 'Future Diary' is portrayed as extremely psychotic.
Yuno from 'Future Diary' is portrayed as extremely psychotic.
Male Powerful battle scenes enhanced with use lightening
Male Powerful battle scenes enhanced with use lightening
Male battles again look dangerous and epic.
Male battles again look dangerous and epic.
Asuna's battle pose is much more provocative.
Asuna's battle pose is much more provocative.


Not all anime falls for the use of these tropes in order to make a successful series, but the ones that do also happen to be extremely popular. In Asuna's case, from 'Sword Art Online' there are many fans that argue for Asuna's actions, saying there was nothing she could do to save herself, which is why she needed to be rescued, therefor it doesn't make her passive as such, as there was nothing she could have done. There is issue with this line of thought, if we begin to defend characters actions as if they are real people, then yes there would be plenty of space to argue differing points, however, we must examine such mediums as Anime and manga as produced pieces of work, created characters and stories. In this sense, we must ask the question, Why place Asuna in a role where she is helpless, if not to undermine her feminine strength and victimize her? Why not make her capable of escaping on her own? And the question must be directed towards the producers, writers and illustrators of such, not the character herself. While other fans argue that the female body is not anti-feminist, and can be used as tool to de-sexualize the female body. Nudity is not wrong, nor does it go against feminist ideas, however, when it concerns the portrayal of only female bodies, mixed with obvious sexual positioning, gazing and innuendos, then it simply cannot be helping to de-sexualize the female body.

While Transgender and gay characters are vast, they are undoubtedly utilized for comedic purposes only, blatantly poking fun at issues that could be dealt with in mature and understanding way. Indeed, a series based on such, with serious and direct acknowledgment of such deep emotional issues could be presented with respect and gain an immense following, instead however, viewers are presented with characters caught in the confines of stereotype and comedy. Androgynous characters are extremely common, and are rarely playing to comedic effects. In reality there are people who identify with this, identifying as both male and female, however, it could also be a reflection of the idea that masculinity and femininity don't have to relate to single gender, a person can indeed have both qualities.

Male characters are much more diverse, offering various idea's of masculinity and real men are. Traditionally, across the globe, masculinity is associated with physical strength, sexual dominance, and activeness. Anime appears more reflective of the diversity of maleness portraying characters of Intellect (Bleach's ishida) and bravery (nearly all male protagonists eventually gain this quality) along with emotional characters, immature (Future Diary's Yuki), manipulative (Death Notes Light) and extremely foolish but like-able (Fullmetal Alchemist's Hughes). Each character is diverse and contains numerous qualities both good and bad. Even if a male character is portrayed as weak, and emotional at the beginning, by the end of his journey he will have grown to be brave.

As with female characters, they too can be shown in diverse ways, however the tropes that fill Anime are based mostly around the women. Firstly, they are nearly always exceptional at housework and cooking (Fruits Basket, Elfen Lied, Bleach). Second, no matter the age, they are always framed in a sexual manner, be that cameras angled behind them as they lean over, frolicking on the beach in Bikini's or bathing in groups where 'accidental' fondling is a necessity of the scene. Thirdly, the 'Psycho Female' is another trope that crops up time and again. These are usually women who are so absolutely obsessed with a particular boy that they will become crazy lunatics stalking their prey and basically acting in an obsessional manner. These characters often perpetuate the idea that men are the more stable, and women tend to fall prey to their emotions making them crazy. Such characters can be seen in 'Death Note', where she is used by the protagonist until he gets what he wants, and 'Future Diary' where she is used by the protagonist to survive. This is not to say there are no male Psychotic characters, rather it is suggesting that women can become crazy due to men and their emotions, while men can simply just be crazy.

Anime and Manga can be exceptional pieces of work, to be respected and awed for their creativity and visual style. While they do portray objectionable and often demeaning portrayals of woman and the gay community though the use of fanservice and comedy, they are also filled with stories of honor, respect, identity and the importance of family. Themes go above and beyond what Western viewers are used to on screen, and so Anime as a whole has become extremely popular in Western parts of the globe.

From Astrid

As always this is meant as a study guide, I welcome any comments and questions. I have linked various articles, explanations and videos throughout the guide so I hope these help to create a wider and more varied argument.

I hope you found this useful, if not leave a comment on how you think it could be improved. If there are any other Anime related themes that you wish to study let me know, or if you want to check out the profile which has a list of things I write about, I am looking for new study projects!

References and Anime Mentioned

Beach (Studio Pierrot, 2004)

Sword Art Online (A-1 Pictures, 2012)

Kill La Kill (Trigger, 2013)

Fullmetal Alchemist (Bones, 2009)

Steins; Gate (White fox, 2011)

Death Note (Madhouse 2006)

Future Diary (Asread, 2011)

© 2015 Astrid North's Study Guide


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I've Always Enjoyed Seeing The Rare Anime Female With No Fanservice In The Anime/Manga/Visuial Novel/Game. I've Quit Fairy Tail Just Because Of The Fan Service. I Enjoyed Erza, A Character Who Seemed Like A Character Who Wouldn't Get Caught Up In The Fanservice, But Once She Did, I Have Had Enough. Being A Masculine Female, I've Always Found The Damsel Stereotype Quite Overused And Unrealistic.

      -How Did The Villian Kidnap The Badass Girl? Did She Just Let Him?

      -Why Does The Girl Not Have A Plan If She Repeatedly Gets Kidnapped

      -Why Can't The Girl Use Her Own Strength To Fight The Villian?

      -Why Does Almost Every Female In Anime Have Fanservice?

      -Why Can't There Be More Females Like Riza Hawkeye Or Olivier Armstrong?

      Of Course, Not Every Female Is Masculine, But It Would Be Nice to See Only Unnecessary Nudity Or Fanservice Only Used When Improtant To The Plot (Making It Not Fanservice). I'm Perfectly Fine With Hentai, Because Why Wouldn't The Female Be Feminine. I Don't Think Your Gonna See Many Masculine Females In A Hentai. But What Am I Doing? I'm Just Gonna Go....


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