Dudes Need Blush Stickers, Too: Incorporating Anime and Manga into Gender Studies Courses

During July 4th weekend in 2016, I presented at the Anime and Manga Studies Symposium, part of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation’s Anime Expo. Below is the copy of the presentation as I wrote it. As this was a discussion about fanservice in anime and manga, some content below is not safe for work (but censored).


My research is on representations of gender, and since 2013, I have been proprietor of the Tumblr blog Soul Dwelling, a fan site centered around the manga and anime Soul Eater, created by Atsushi Ohkubo and running from 2007 to 2013. I also have been a contributor and administrator to the Soul Eater Wiki, so I have extensive knowledge about the series, its creation, and many interpretations surrounding it. For those not familiar with the series—and there will be spoilers in this presentation—the original Soul Eater series focuses on students who can transform into weapons. These students are trained by the grim reaper himself, known as Lord Death, to assassinate his enemies and to fight against a dangerous power known as Madness, which can assume multiple forms, as Fear, Wrath, Greed, and so on.

This action-oriented gothic series has with it a good dose of comedy—and it struck a nerve with me as I was trying to finish my PhD on literature and gender studies, because Soul Eater is simultaneously really good and really frustrating. As a shonen action series, and with assumptions that such genres appeal primarily to young boys, Soul Eater has many productive practices for studies of gender and sexuality, focusing on female, agender, and queer characters who are complex, undermine clichés and stereotypes, and, as I will argue, in the hands of many fans, fully realized and treated with respect. They are leaders, witches, thieves, villains, heroes. The protagonist, Maka Albarn, is a complex character: she is a capable fighter—intelligent, powerful—yet also flawed, afraid, and a bit prideful. And Maka’s sometimes-opponent sometimes-ally Crona, a character who is agender, provides a helpful view about the ramifications of child abuse and living through trauma. The series also has a largely respectful representation of Jacqueline O’Lantern Dupre, who is attracted romantically and sexually to her teammate Kim Diehl, and whose feelings for her are not simply treated as a joke or as shipbait but as a potential relationship. As with any shonen story, obviously the show attracts a large female audience. Add to this, the series also includes genderbending

At the same time, Soul Eater has the habit of indulging in fanservice. Spoilers for the manga: it concludes with a new form of Madness taking over the world, the “Madness of Boobs,” which makes characters obsessed with breasts. The chapter ends with images that are evocative of those from the first chapters, when Soul Eater was fixated on this kind of fanservice before largely avoiding it in later chapters. Thus, this manga ends its 113-chapter run giving us this…and this…and this…and this. There is a reason that Ohkubo, the series creator and troll that he is, has received the portmanteau “Troll-kubo” among fans.

Being in the Soul Eater online fan community is masochism: there is so much about the series that works, and even those parts that don’t work still prompt a passionate fan community to respond with their own works in illustrations, fiction, roleplay, and cosplay to fix what they see as flaws, particularly the one-sided fanservice directed at female characters. Having spoken with fans the last two years while publishing, researching, and teaching, I have seen how fans produce work online and at conventions that can provide options for us as scholars in how we teach gender in the classroom.

I recognize that such fanservice can be integral to a plot or yield legitimately creative humor—Kill La Kill and Space Dandy being two good but flawed examples. As well, at least one character shown in these images, Blair, who is a cat who transforms into a female human, largely avoids these cliché jokes after a certain point in the manga, her antics at times more similar to Tom and Jerry than cheesecake poses. Nevertheless, in Ohkubo’s work the text tends to have a double-standard—save two moments, one involving boys in the shower and boys bonding with a naked dance.

This gendered disparity persists in another way. In 2015, Soul Eater received a prequel, titled Soul Eater NOT! that featured a marked changed in tone. Whereas the original anime was a gothic comedy-action series with Tim Burton and David Lynch touches, the prequel Soul Eater NOT! was a moe school-based romantic-comedy with less darkness and less action.

The differences in tone are apparent visually: both images here are of series protagonist Maka. In the original anime, Maka has more gothic elements–a profile view of her head shows that her face actually resembles that of a skinless human skull–while in the prequel NOT! Maka has a permanent blush. In fact, this permanent blush, these “blush stickers,” one on each cheek, are present on the faces of all female characters in this series at all times, whereas their male, agender, or transgender colleagues lack such blush stickers.

This change in visual style was met with much derision online, considering how the previous animated series made Maka look much more homicidal in combat. Context is important to consider, not only in terms of one series being more gothic than the other. As well, there are the cultural differences for North American audiences watching this Japanese series that I am still considering in my response.

When the first episode premiered online, a few of us on my site discussed these visual differences. Someone remarked how all of the girls were blushing and not the boys. So I photoshopped one of the male characters to give him the blush stickers. Then I did so for just about all of the male characters who appear in just the first episode. Oh, and I did this cliché meme.

I am discussing blush stickers here as they pertain to only Soul Eater and its prequel, as I don’t want to suggest that there is only one interpretation of them. We know from how much anime we watch that there are male characters in other series with permanent blush stickers, and that female characters wearing blush stickers are shown to be absolute badasses in combat, such as Ochako Uraraka in My Hero Academia. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist adding blush stickers to that series’ male character, All Might.

(Speaking of which, when I was at Anime Expo, one illustrator at the convention’s artist alley, atomicmangos, was commissioned to add blush stickers to both the male and female protagonists of Soul Eater, clarifying for me the gender neutrality of such traits.)

Blush stickers, therefore, really are gender neutral. They pop up temporarily when characters are embarrassed, while they tend to persist with characters of any gender at all times to identify their innocence and naiveté, as with Ochako or the male character Izuku Midoriya in My Hero Academia. But with the use of PhotoShop in our classes, as teachers and as students, we can take content from the pop culture around us if it helps us discuss flaws and strengths in certain representations. These are the kind of sample assignments we can develop in our courses: we can have students create their own re-designs of characters’ appearances and attire, which, alongside a brief paragraph of explanation and a short presentation to class, can discuss with their peers what they think is lacking in this one series and in larger cases of Japanese and North American popular culture when it comes to representations of gender and sexuality. Such re-designs of characters can be these PhotoShop revisions, or give students blank paper dolls to have them design their own illustrations onto them, or have them create their own artwork. What you are doing with students is essentially having them be creators themselves: you have them propose a design to their peers for feedback, which is similar to what illustrators and writers in comics and animation must do when they propose designs to their editors, directors, and staff. You are letting the students take on this responsibility of creation so that they get a sense of the challenges anime and manga creators face—and rather than simply excoriate those creators for supposedly bad decisions, determine whether students themselves can find a better solution.

I’d like to conclude with another sample lesson. In 2015, I presented as part of Dartmouth College’s comics and animation conference, where a fellow panelist Forrest C. Helvie, who has worked with Marvel and DC Comics, identified the goal of modifying impractical and revealing attire in the superhero genre so that costumes were not only iconic but fashionable and without reinforcing a double-standard of objectifying female characters. One artist who was applying this practice was illustrator EZ-Art, who collaborated with other fans to re-design the outfit of Momo, a supporting character from My Hero Academia. EZ-Art gave me permission to use this image, and I encourage you to visit their site. You’ll notice that EZ-Art’s illustration does not ignore that, within the story, Momo designed her own outfit. And that is an important point to reinforce: we have seen how fanart and cosplay identify that a person gets to wear whatever they want. However, when the outfit is based around potentially making a character into eye candy, and when the outfit is not as practical as it can be, improvements can be made and must at all times be treated as discussion, not judgment or condemnation: neither of those tactics can be tolerated and must be shamed loudly and clearly. Nevertheless, as Momo’s superpower depends on pulling objects forming out of her skin, she requires exposed skin. Not only does the modified attire here provide more space for Momo along her abdomen, but it also looks like an outfit that would be worn in combat, in exercises, and without as much of risk of clothing damage.

Returning to Soul Eater creator Atsushi Ohkubo, his latest manga, which Kodansha licensed the same weekend I was presenting at Anime Expo, Fire Force, features a character who has a similar concern between picking the best outfit, and having superpowers that require exposed skin: Tamaki Kotatsu has to have exposed skin to generate flames off her body. Whereas her male colleague Shinra Kusakabe, shown here groping her—because of course—generates flames from his feet and is therefore often shoeless, Tamaki has to leave most skin exposed. While that outfit is understandable, the idea that her outfit is of her own choice is compromised by her author’s decision to reduce her to fanservice-bait. If you want slapstick, at least work to defy clichés rather than, as has been the case so far in Fire Force, reinforce a one-sided objectification of female bodies. Personally, I’ve tried with other fans of the series to revise the story, in roleplay or fanfiction—to see how the story is altered by having the slapstick without groping female characters, or what revisions emerge when it is male characters who are groped.

There are more exhaustive sample lessons that I would like to incorporate into classes. We can work with art and fashion departments at colleges for team-taught courses that use cosplay to respond to problems in costuming. The goal is to have the texts respond to the gaps we see. What can we do, with an assignment in fanfiction or roleplay, that has students modify a problematic moment in a story? This is not intended to re-write a story simply to suit what one critic online has dismissed, wrongly I think, as “fan entitlement”; it is to explain _why_ we make these revisions. It is through contrast to the original text that we see roads not taken, why certain alternative approaches were not taken, and what we as creators, here in North America or in Japan, can do better on our next drafts.

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