Goggles, not Labels – Feminism and Good Writing in [Anime]

The following questions were taken from my Ask.fm page, and in both of them the question is posed in a way that seeks to apply a certain label to anime, and I answer that it’s hard, and not all that fruitful. The reasons in each case are different, but I think both answers work well together as an exhortation to look at how we look at things, and to identify that as more important than the result itself.

Which anime works would you consider feminist?

I’ve seen some good tweets on the matter last week, let’s start with those:

MammonMachine on "Is this feminism?"

The long and short of it is that, often, answering such questions (and also, “What’s a libertarian work?” or “What’s a socialist work?” when dealing beyond outright manifestos) means something sort of weird, because all these things are ideological goggles to view other things throughout, rather than labels that apply to things per se. Even “Libertianism” which I said Mahouka espouses the ideals of. It’s mostly that these works contain some of the things these things aim for, or the ideas they use as basis.

Ergo Proxy anime episode 1 - Re-L Meyer looks down on others

I could list a lot of “feminist works”, and since feminism means so many different things to so many different people, there’ll be people who will disagree with every single one of them. I won’t try to answer “What is feminism?” for instance.

I mean, is Fairy Tail feminist? I think it might very well be. Is Avatar: The Last Airbender (I know it’s not an anime, I’m making a point)? I think so. Is Kyousougiga any more feminist than Uchouten Kazoku? Not by some definitions I know.

And most works are far too layered. Is one non-feminist or even anti-feminist moment in a show enough to make it “non-feminist”? I don’t think so, some people do. Is Princess Tutu feminist? I actually don’t think so, on various angles.

It’s a mess. If you’re trying to use this question to gauge my thoughts on what feminism is in general, or how I judge shows, it won’t help you, because it truly is taking in the whole of a thing. I also don’t try to think “Is this show feminist or not?” because not only does it miss the point, and not only does it not yield much of interest as a label, it’s also not very useful for discussions.

Guy: I actually wish I could’ve avoided posting the following question, but I can imagine my comment section otherwise.

Fairy Tail is the most fanservice heavy shounen out there, and you feel it may be feminist? Is that because of Erza’s character?

Fairy Tail S2 episode 13 05.17 shocked peanut gallery

Who’d have thought an answer detailing why applying or arguing about which show is feminist, and going to length at explaining that not only each person’s criteria will be different, but that each person’s criteria for deciding what is /not/ a “[feminist] work” ([] could be filled with any ideology-goggles), would net a result at someone disagreeing with one of my opinions.

I’ll be very brief about answering your “question”. Fan-service in and of itself does not make a work non-feminist (at least as far as I’m concerned), just as lack of fan-service does not make a work feminist. Erza is but one character. There are more things to something being a feminist work or not than to whether it has female characters (think about “feminist diplomacy” or “feminist ecology”). And on female representation in that show, it has so many strong female characters, and weak, and human, and a great variation of roles for them to fill. Erza, Levy, Wendy, Minerva, Kagura, Cana, and the list goes on. Some are sexualized, some not, and almost never within the show’s world itself.

In case it’s not clear, we could be here all day arguing about whether a specific show is or is not “feminist”, and it won’t be terribly productive or useful. As such, I’m not interested in engaging in said activity.

Which anime works do you think have good writing?

Ergo Proxy anime episode 11 - The memory keeper gives sage advice

It might not seem so hard on first glance, but this question is actually quite hard to answer. Think of it like this, when you read a book, everything from the scene-setting to the character interaction exists in the space between the words the writer provided and your interpretation of them/filling in the blanks. Since we consider ourselves static, we attribute our changed perspective to the writing.
So far so good, but what about an anime? There exists the writing, ourselves, the medium in between, as before, and also the directing, and the acting, and any other number of things.

Let’s say you dislike a scene, is it possible that it was well-written, but poorly directed? Is it possible the scene itself was well-written, but poorly attached to the one before it? Is it possible it was just well-acted or well-produced and thus lacked impact? Yes. And it could be true for a scene you like in spite of poor writing as well.

Is a well-written show well-written for its overarching plot? For its thematic discussion? Well-written as a show in terms of how everything is constructed, or its dialogue?

I just think it’s incredibly hard to actually point out at “good writing” in anime. A good example for me would be The Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun, which has well-written sketches, but I don’t find it funny due to the delivery. I find Madoka Magica’s overarching plot well-written, but not everything about it is. Same for Steins;Gate – That those two involve time travel isn’t accidental, because it shows a certain form of narrative construction.

I find Durarara!! to be well-written on multiple angles, but I’m certainly mixing it with direction, but part of it is that it is the adaptation, beyond the source material, that is well-written, in terms of well-constructed, in crossing everything together.

Questions for readers: To flip it about, what use do you get out of labels? And which shows do you think are well-written?

4 comments on “Goggles, not Labels – Feminism and Good Writing in [Anime]

  1. Sephyxer says:

    Hey, I’m gonna post a comment since I want to show you that I appreciate what you do with your blog entries. First of all I want to say that it’s a pity this editorial didn’t get any comments, so if you’re a reader and this post gave you some thoughts, don’t be shy and comment however you want, even if it’s 2020 or more.

    This blog post is very interesting to me because, together with that twitter comment from @MammonMachine, helped me think about how concepts can be used to look at media, as goggles and not labels. I have nothing to add to it, so I’ll start with your questions.

    “What use do you get out of labels?”

    Labels are a sort of double-edged sword, they are a shortcut for explaining concepts but, as Lord Henry from “The Picture of Dorian Gray” said, “to define is to limit“. They are also very unreliable, since many people have different definitions of the same word, especially for concepts like “feminism” and such.
    I usually try to stay away from labels because I don’t want to be defined by them, I want to define myself. I can take some ideas from feminism, but won’t call myself a feminist. Same goes for MRAs, GamerGaters or whatever is cool these days.
    This reminds me, another bad thing about labels is how they’re weaponised by some people to ridicule others: think about when GGs call their “enemies” names like SJWs or when feminists call GGs mysogynists. Those labels are only a way from the user to belittle their “opponent”, because this way they’re no more talking with an individual with their own ideas, they’re talking with “one of the many people who are part of said group”, and since they already know how such people behave they won’t have the desire to engage with them . When something gets defined it’s no more unknown, and since it’s no more unknown there will be no need to get to understand it.
    So yeah, I don’t like labels, especially those that are too vague or wide such as ‘art’, ‘perfection’, ‘feminism’ etc.

    “Which shows do you think are well-written?”

    Following from what I said earlier, “Well-written” is a word too vague for me. I am sure I would use it in informal discussions, for example if I were to suggest an anime I’d say “Oregairu is a really well-written show!”, but this doesn’t really help me much in explaining what I think, does it?A concept like this is useful only to me since it is very susceptible to subjectivity.
    In the end, I can’t say what makes a show well written, but I can tell you that a show is well-written when I see it.
    Ah, you meant which shows I think are well-written? For me those are the ones with an high score on my MAL: http://myanimelist.net/profile/Sephixer

    My head is aching from thinking and writing so much, I’m not used to it even though it’s really enjoyable. Hope I made a reasonable comment here, I still am learning how to frame concepts as hard as those, so my thoughts could seem a little inconsistent.

    And you Guy, you’re doing a great job, and for that I can say that your posts are really well-written!
    Yes, I like your writing and would like to see more of it ;)

    • Guy says:

      Thanks for the comment! And sadly, all of the thunder for this blog-entry went into the ask.fm it’s copied from, though it might be that people can’t comment there.

      As for labels, it’s dangerous not to go too much into the “anti-labels” camp. People are part of larger movements, and trying to reduce everything to the individual, aside from making communication impossible, ironically enough, because there are far too many people, is just false. We’re created by our environments to a large degree. Even if we do not apply a moniker to us wholly, we still take a lot of ideas. And we’ll never get anywhere if we read every sentence as if it’s bereft of social context. Emil Durkheim’s “Social Facts” concept is a mandatory idea to familiarize oneself with. He wrote specifically on suicide, which should be the most personal of decisions, and shows how in some ways, it’s not.

      Short-hands are useful, but it’s important to remember that they are a tool. Just like words. To counter your Lord Henry quote, since this blog focuses heavily on anime, I’ll bring up the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. It is those very limitations that allow us to act. Not just definitions, but limitations as such. No analysis paralysis that way.

      And yes, I meant which shows you, in particular :) The MAL link won’t work for you, will you claim all the shows you rated highly are well-written? I wonder.

      And thanks for taking the time and effort to comment, and to flatter me. Both (are the same thing? Heh) are appreciated.

      • Sephyxer says:

        Ahah, yeah, you’re right about going too much into the “anti-labels” camp. Somehow when I write about something I don’t like I focus so much on the bad points that I end up hating the stuff more than I really do. Actually I also think that there are good things about labels -or “words” as I will call them from now on- they help us frame concept that are too abstract to visualize, or even invite us to new ideas (just came into my mind this cool website http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/). As I said before (but now on a positive note), giving a name to something makes us understand the very thing. That’s why limiting our vocabulary will also bring to less ideas.
        Earlier I also said that I don’t want to be defined by those words, but it’s true that I am what I eat: the only individual thing about me is how I get to accept those ideas comparing them with others I got earlier and accepted in their own time. I sure did sound like someone who strives for individuality at the cost of denying every influence I get from the surrounding environment.

        You got me on the MAL list! After all I don’t really think that Clannad AS is a well-written show, the high score is only indicative of which anime I enjoyed watching the most. But it’s also true that I mostly find a show enjoyable if they are considered by me well-written, so there’s that.
        Also, as contradictory as it may sound, I wanted to give a definition to a word as vague as “well-written” to help me justify the choice of the shows I’d label as such, but it was pretty impossible for me as it is defining hot and cold. For now I’ll just say that everything Nisioisin does is well-written: I love the monogatari series, the two Zaregoto novels I read and that last show he did by the name of Okitegami Kyouko.

        Of course, I’ll continue flattering you, but only if you also keep on writing good stuff! I’ll count on you for figuring out what “good stuff” means though ;)

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