In three of the main genres of Japanese animated pornography, then, female characters are privileged, not degraded. In the osana najimi story, women are not merely bodies to be gazed upon, exploited, and manipulated. They are instead characters in their own right and often developed much more than male characters. These male characters respect the female characters and connect with them just as much on an emotional level as they do on a physical level, and their union is often tied to a narrative of self-realization and maturation for both parties. Certainly, the personalities of the female characters are often based on phallocentric ideals, but the same could be said of many female characters in the mainstream anime from which the pornography draws its tropes. In the self-fulfilling harem story, women are depicted as fantasizing about idealized men as they satisfy themselves sexually, and actual men are not strictly necessary. On a metatextual level, this situation parodies many popular mainstream anime as well the onanistic activities of the male viewer who is erotically drawn to these anime. Finally, occult pornography bestows on its female characters many of the powers given to the protagonists of magical shōjo stories, and these characters are thus able to defeat their tentacles and enjoy them too. Also, these stories locate erotic and other physical experiences in the female body, thus allowing the viewer to receive pleasure by identifying as female.
Of course, not every pornographic story challenges traditional notions of the male as subject and the female as object in these ways. One of the more problematic tropes of animated pornography (which is often embedded in science fiction themed stories like Bondage Queen Kate) is that of the female rape victim who falls in love with her rapist in a case of sexual/romantic Stockholm Syndrome. This is not to be confused with the erotic conversation that often occurs during consensual sexual acts, of which a typical example might be, “No, stop, don’t do that, please stop” (Yamete! Sore dake wa dame. Iya da!). Rather, this trope involves a woman who actively resists and is obviously upset by a traumatic sexual experience only to then blushingly cuddle with her rapist(s) after the act. Closely connected to the rape equals love trope is the idea that it’s not rape if you enjoyed it, which occasionally finds its way into more conventional (and consensual) pornographic narratives. In my experience, however, both of these tropes are infinitely more common in manga than they are in anime, so I will put them aside for a future discussion. (What I will also put aside is the prevalence of both of these tropes in boys’ love pornography, which is written by women and for women.)
In any case, if the generalizing assumption that animated pornography privileges female characters can be accepted, can we therefore state that it isn’t sexist? Does it really treat female characters as subjects with their own agency? To address this question, I’d like to briefly refer to American feminist debates regarding live-action American pornography in the eighties. By 1980, feminists such as Laura Lederer had started to speak out against rape and spousal abuse. To greatly oversimplify the matter, these feminists blamed real-world violence against women on the misogyny present in mainstream media and public discourse. Pornography became a key issue in this movement, with radical feminist Robin Morgan famously stating that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice.” The notion that watching pornography directly influences men to commit sex crimes has since been challenged and disproved, but the idea of a “pornographic gaze” that is harmful to women remains, especially when it is joined to the concept of the “male gaze” that has been adapted and re-adapted ever since cinema theorist Laura Mulvey first proposed its existence in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.
The concept of the male/pornographic gaze is highly psychoanalytic in nature, and I’m still not sure that I completely understand it; but, to summarize, it is centered around subjects and objects, with the looker being the subject and the person being looked upon being an object that the looker is free to manipulate as he wishes. This type of looking, which denies the agency and humanity of all but the looker, is considered to be extremely psychologically violent to the women who are often the objects of the gaze. Therefore, even if the narrative of a pornographic story characterizes women as powerful and respected by male characters, the way that the camera treats their bodies – forcing them to hold still as it pans over their curves, or rotating around them to show their bodies off to full effect, or taking the position of the male who is sexually penetrating them – cancels out any interiority or agency with which the narrative might have endowed them. Robert Jensen, the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, articulates this argument quite succinctly:
Pornography presents women as objectified female bodies that exist for men’s sexual pleasure. Because women in pornography are not subjects but objects, not fully human, kindness towards them is no more required than would be kindness to any other object. If while out for a walk I picked up a stone and threw it down the road, no one would chastise me for being unkind to the stone. So it is in pornography.
Of course there are many problems with this theory, including, for example, the fact that it ignores the existence of a female viewer who may have an entirely different relationship to the characters on screen. Devil Hunter Yōko may be a sex object to heterosexual male viewers, but my teenage self adored her simply because she is such a badass. It’s also not inconceivable that many male viewers have been similarly captivated by her sword-swinging antics (the show has some awesome fight scenes) without then going to look for porn of the character being raped or otherwise abused.
On a broader scale, I believe that a great deal of Japanese animated pornography out of the (admittedly limited) amount I have seen over the course of the past fifteen years is not at all unkind to its female characters. They have interiority (in that they are often the main character or narrator), they have agency (in that they are usually in full control of what happens to their bodies), and they are often quite powerful characters, even if the viewer is encouraged to ogle their every curve. Certainly the context is quite different than that being addressed by feminists like Robert Jensen and Andrea Dworkin, but I believe that’s why it’s important for Western feminist scholars to pay attention to Japan. The more data there is to add nuance to an argument, the better; and there is a huge amount of data contained within the wide field of Japanese animated pornography. When the very category of gender itself is now accepted as imaginary, perhaps imaginary women themselves deserve a closer look.
To complicate my argument a bit, I feel that it’s necessary to bring up the topic of moe, a style of characterization that either focuses on children or presents young adults as childlike in an attempt to stir an affective emotional response in the viewer or reader. The titles I have been referring to in this essay are from the nineties, and similar stories continue to be released. From the beginning of the past decade, however, moe has gradually crept into mainstream animated pornography; and, even though all of the characters are 100% imaginary, this style of graphic and narrative depiction has often been labeled as child pornography and treated accordingly – with unmasked disgust. (There is even a now-famous case of an American manga collector being jailed for importing this type of pornography.)
It is easy to dismiss this reaction as sexual Puritanism, as sexuality is a fantastic wonderland of the mostly unknown and, in any case, illustrations are just illustrations. However, even non-pornographic anime has adopted a sexualizing moe element, from relatively innocuous series like K-ON to not-so-innocent series like Kodomo no jikan. What is upsetting about moe to me personally is not the sexualization of minors, per se, but rather the minor-ification of sexual subjects. What I have been sensing over the past ten years is a feedback loop between animated pornography and mainstream animation in Japan, the result of which being that an infantilizing pornographic gaze has been increasingly applied to the characters of many popular anime series. A great deal of digital ink has been spilled discussing this topic (and a good place to start clicking on links is the Wikipedia article), so I will defer to other writers, but I simply wish to mention it as an alternate path of inquiry on the topic of female characters in Japanese pornographic anime.
Speaking of deferring to other writers, I’d like to list some of my sources. Eric Cazdyn’s The Flash of Capital has a lot of good information and discussion of pink films and Japanese cinema. Susan Napier’s book on anime has an excellent chapter about occult anime, and Anne Allison’s Permitted and Prohibited Desires has some good chapters on eromanga and the many types of gazes – although both books are a little out of date. Roland Kelt’s Japanamerica has a fun chapter on ecchi anime that’s much more current, and Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals does a nice job of explaining moe. The book Feminism and Pornography does an excellent job of summarizing the feminist and legal debates concerning pornography in the seventies and eighties, and the essay collection Everyday Pornography provides a nice update on the subject from many different voices (plus it has a super classy cover). Finally, the last two chapters of Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan summarize the context of postwar Japanese feminist movements, and Ueno Chizuko’s Onna-girai: Nippon no misogyny, published about a year ago, covers everything that’s been happening in the post-postwar period (and is also a fantastic read). As always, if there’s anything I’m missing but should definitely read – academic or otherwise – please feel free to let me know about it!