Anime’s Impact on Queer Culture
Japanimation, or anime, is a style of Japanese film and television animation, typically aimed at all age ranges. Anime is a form of art that grew into a massive cultural phenomenon over the years and gained international recognition for the intricate themes it tackles, ranging from sexuality, psychological disorders and suffering to political elements such as fascism and anarchy. Despite the various genres that anime tackles, it has been an important aspect of queer culture for years now.
The link between anime and the LGBTQIA+ community has been as old as anime itself, with the revolutionary cartoonist Osamu Tezuka’s 1967 series Princess Knight being one of the first ever representations of LGBTQ+ characters in media. What exactly ties anime to the community —the representation, the fandoms, the culture or the guidance it gives to young people?
Diversity and Acceptance
Anime, being a fairly new form of entertainment–with the first ever “anime” being produced in 1917, has always been accepting of characters with distinctive personalities, and showcases several unorthodox traits. Since the Princess Knight series aired in Japan, there had been a steady rise in queer representation in anime, inspiring influential series like The Rose of Versailles, Ranma ½ and Revolutionary Girl Utena (also the most acclaimed queer baiting series?).
Dealing with diverse characters and delicate backgrounds, anime quickly became a favourite among young people belonging to the queer community. It has been a source of solace for many, seeing characters that reflect their feelings through the black-and-white pages of manga and acknowledging their realities. In a time when society did not acknowledge the presence of the community in schools, manga and anime became a guiding light on LGBT issues.
Japanese society, being highly conservative and expecting high levels of conformity from its youth, the portrayal of LGBT characters on television was always in a negative light and caused isolation and misunderstanding. On the other hand, anime created a world where you can be anything you like—gender fluidity and sexuality being a recurring theme, with encouraging depictions of characters that enabled Japanese youth to understand and come to terms with the reality of the queer community.
Cosplay and Inclusion
An important facet of anime fan culture is cosplay—the art of imitating the clothing and accessorization of a character. Cosplay, a popular hobby among anime and manga fans–gained the likes of all genders alike. Cosplay conventions being a place to socialise with people with similar interests, often allowed queer individuals to express themselves freely in safe spaces. Cosplay allows people to explore the gender identities of the characters they choose to portray and it is common to cosplay characters belonging to a different gender than the cosplayer.
Many young members of the LGBT community are introduced to a stereotype free area where they can choose to identify however they wish to. Cosplay experiences are freeing and are very inclusive of people with various sexualities and genders. Several LGBT cosplayers have expressed their experiences, comfortable doing what they liked best and not being judged for it in conventions.
Breaking Gender Norms
Anime genres, classified based on the target audience, have two major classes—shoujo (meaning young female) targeted at teen girls and shounen (meaning young male) targeted at teen boys. Despite the gender based classification, both genres have often equally represented characters without stereotypical traits of their associated genders. Take for example, the anime trope of delicate boys in the sports genre. Often characters in sports anime break typical traits associated with athletic men and show layered personalities.
Another notable sub-genre of anime is mahou shoujo, or magical girl. Not only showing off strong female protagonists, the genre has a penchant for non-conformity and breaks common stereotypes. Mahou shoujo is also a favourite among the wlw queer community, with works like Sailor Moon and Wonder Egg Priority showcasing intricate romantic relationships between women. Sailor Moon is one of the first anime with an openly homosexual pairing which caused a huge ripple within the queer community.
Anime also encompasses many non-binary and gender fluid characters in even the most mainstream of titles (Hange from Attack on Titan is non-binary; Haruhi’s father from Ouran High School Host Club is a drag queen). With anime tropes such as soul switching and gender bending, gender fluidity is widespread in anime. The highest grossing anime film, Your Name, from 2016, presents a conventional body-switching plot with a non-problematic take on the main character Mitsuha’s sexuality and gender. The focus of the film not being on her sexuality, it manages to capture the characters’ personalities and in particular Mitsuha’s sexual fluidity without much effort, showing how she is disappointed when she is unable to go on a date with a woman in another body and her greatest desire is to live as a boy in a huge city.
Although many argue that such representations of “strong female” and “delicate male” characters reinforce gender stereotypes, the diversity in character personalities in anime is refreshing unlike the hyper-sexualised “strong female” tropes in western media.
Recurring LGBTQ+ Themes in Anime
LGBT themes in anime found their origins from fans who created “doujinshis” which are self-published works that often pair up fan favourite characters. The first official media containing same-sex relationships began to materialise in the 60s, with the terms “yaoi” and “yuri” being coined. Yaoi, also called shounen-ai or boy’s love, started as an extension to the shoujo genre, which focused on romantic tales and was targeted at young women and girls. Work that focused on male to male intimacy in particular came to be referred to as yaoi. Similarly, works that featured female to female intimacy were called yuri, shoujo ai or girl’s love.
However, through the years, representation of the queer community surpassed genres, and anime such as Cardcaptor Sakura (1998), a magical girl anime portraying a gay relationship, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’s (1987) main antagonist Dio being bisexual, the genre defying series Banana Fish (1985) having a homoromantic relationship at its crux despite not being a shounen-ai work came out and largely influenced the industry.
Through the years, the portrayal of same-sex relationships and gender-non conforming characters became less stereotypical and more diverse. Psycho-Pass, a 2012 sci-fi anime features a same-sex relationship between women and does not pursue it as a sub-plot. Instead it just portrays it as just another aspect of the lives of the characters, who are officers and detectives in the series.
Negative Representation & Fetishisation of Queer Characters
Despite all the contributions anime has to the LGBT community, it has dealt a fair amount of damage as well. Sexualising queer characters or queer baiting fans is as widespread in anime and it is with any other form of media today. The genres, yaoi—for gay relationships and yuri—for lesbian relationships, have often been curated for the heterosexual viewers of the opposite sex. The term “fujoshi” (translated as “rotten woman”) refers to a heterosexual woman who enjoys yaoi anime and manga. This has been extremely problematic, with more fans viewing gay relationships as an aspect that exists for their pleasure and not as a component of society.
Studies show that queer people are more likely to indulge in geek or nerd cultural spaces, due to certain themes that are common in their experiences. The themes were—safety and sexuality, the welcoming community, the importance it gives to visibility and representation to marginalised groups and gender expression. Many convention attendees feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in their convention communities. Stigma being a common factor between nerd culture and sexual orientation/gender identity, revealing multiple hidden aspects of life could create a large positive impact on a person.
Even at conventions that are not specifically for LGBT attendees, the significant presence of members of the community creates a sense of ease and comfort with expressing themselves. Not only sharing the connection between members of the same fandom, also sharing personal aspects of life, often going to conventions or meeting fellow nerds and geeks can feel a lot like “home”, or as described by many, “finding your tribe”. Conventions also involve multiple activities that call for creative instincts and creates a fun atmosphere for socialising and getting to know people with similar interests, which is highly encouraging for queer people, especially when it concerns forming genuine bonds, where acceptance by general society is highly limited, and even family could let you down.
~ Kavyaa Kannan