The Theory of Objectification in Anime

Objectification…that term is thrown around a lot. We hear it a lot…especially when it comes to sexism. In particular, I’ve written this as a bit of a precursor to the entire field of anime and the role of female characters. This post is intended to be more of an introduction to the concept and the problems surrounding it more than actually deriving anything unique or specific.

So, what exactly IS objectification? If we do something as simple as a Google search, the definition pretty much reads the conversion and treatment of a human into an object through tone and text. This might be hard to engage as a reader, so I’ll try explaining it below:

Sentence Structure

What an odd place to start you may say. Why do we start here you ask? It’s because I find if we retrace the basic concept of a sentence, it’s easy to relate the structure to the role and term.

So, in a sentence, we have two key nouns: a subject and an object. Simply put, a sentence can be broken down into subjects doing something to an object. For example, in the sentence “I charged the door”, I am the subject, the door is an object, and the action is charging it.

All well and good, but how does this help us understand objectification? One of the biggest aspects of character traits is the concept of agency. Agency is the power for a character to influence the fictional world around them. If they are in trouble, can they help themselves? If they need to convince someone of something, can they? So on and so forth. When we take this back to our sentences, if they can do these actions, they are subjects. They are actively doing something. In the simplest sentence, we can reduce it to a similar structure of the above: The [character] [did something] [to someone else].

Passive Wording and Objects

This is where objectification itself comes in: an object cannot retain the structure above without breaking grammatical conventions. If an object is conducting in action, it creates something called “passive voice”. I should know…most of my sentences become passive voice unless I actively seek to remove it from my work. Let’s use the same door charging example above though. I we decided to keep the same structure but have the object (door) act, we could get “The door was charged by me”. Notice how the object is acting. This creates passive voice. One of the easiest ways to identify passive voice is if you need to specify upon whom the object is acting upon. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but it should catch most of them. In this case, it is “me” who is being acted upon by “the door”.

Stop Dancing Around the Subject Man…How Does This Help?

With that background in mind, we can describe a story in brief sentences like the above. Our hero rescues the captive, our hero defeats the bad guy and so forth. Now let’s take a second here and get something straight: using characters as objects on its own is not a bad thing. In fact, this is pretty much key in this regard. If any interaction occurs between characters, we will almost invariably need to create objects out of characters. Even “I hit Adam” means you’ve turned Adam into an object that you can hit to a very small degree.

Where characters become objectified is when their personality becomes almost exclusively defined by how other characters act on them. They do not exert a will or any agency on the universe but instead are continually subjected to the will of other characters. For example, Peach (fine..Princess Toadstool) would always be treated as an object. If we use the sentence structure I defined, we’ll find she’s always the object of her stories when we describe the original Mario Brothers game. Peach was abducted by Bowser. Peach was moved to another castle (presumably by Bowser again). Peach was rescued by Mario. In each case, she’s the object. It’s unfair to pin this all on the game, sure, since storytelling in video games itself were fairly limited at the time, but we don’t get the sense that Peach did anything.

And is objectification on its own bad? No. The implementation of it an become concerning though in associating groups of individuals with being object.

Group Objectification

This is the only you’ve most likely heard about before. In particular, objectification of female characters in anime sometimes becomes a particularly sticky subject as claims of them being used as purely bait for male characters becomes emphasized. Indeed, I think you could make a point of that by saying that poorly written harem anime exemplifies this at its worst: each female character only exists to appeal to a small part of the viewer profile and do not interact with each other.

But at least you get fields of pretty girls for all your trouble…or something.

And here’s where I’ll declare something fundamental in my opinion: anime is not a medium isolated from the “real” world. Society affects it and it affects society. How much can be debated – god knows people still debate until they’re red in the face how important or influential movies and video games are for children. However, we certainly know that entertainment is not isolated. The way you see the world is changed and altered by what you watch and read. Have you never seen a show or read a book that you feel you should integrate into you system of thought or process? If not, I would imagine you are in the minority. Heck, Extra Credits (again, I love that group) just about had a fit when they were talking about Call of Juarez: The Cartel for this exact reason and it’s one of the few times they ever had to self censor themselves. I’ve posted the link talking about propaganda games (the more important aspect), but I would look that up if you have the chance.

The gritty details themselves may be geared more towards games, but if anybody opens it, I want to make sure you understand that these do not exist alone. What we read and see can influence how we act. And it is through this that designers need to be somewhat careful that they don’t overstep or overemphasize specific material.

I’ll give you a personal example: my ability to write has been drastically altered after playing 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. While this was later altered by my own idiosyncrasies, the methods I go about writing characters and revealing their true character traits have changed dramatically.

So, why all this? Well, I think we need to understand that while objectification of characters themselves is not harmful, tying objective traits to specific groups is. Again, let’s return to the video above. These things aren’t effective when you think of them as such, but when they’re quietly place, you might cause shifts in thought. But if they are subtly and accidentally placed in and we don not think of them as effects that can alter our thought, we can be prone to changing our opinion because of them. And this is where I believe most people feel concern if they think about objectification of characters in anime: too many objectified characters of a specific group can lead to thought of that group being more of an object because they have been engaged as such previously. Again, this heavily comes down from the female character side, but there are other small sections on this.

Really, and I’ll emphasize this as many times as I think it’ll take to get through: objectified characters are not an issue. Objectification itself isn’t an issue. But objectification of groups repeatedly through different shows may influence the viewership if they are not aware of it. I will also repeat that it’s impossible typically to measure the effects of it and should not be taken as an excuse to censor or to alter. But awareness is key. Being aware means being capable of recognizing when objectification is used. By recognizing, it is possible to not be prone to incidental indoctrination as described in the Extra Credits video.

Well, that’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll have something more fun to talk about next time.


Bland Characters vs Subtle Characters

I’ve always found this topic interesting…and since I haven’t felt like typing something more lengthy this week (and have been sick for much of the week), I figured to talk about this.

Think about a bland character.  Just your everyday generic character from your favourite anime, video game, what have you.  These characters are almost universally dumped on by their fans because of their lack of actual personality.  We can list trope after trope after trope about this.  Almost always, they will be used in a negative light when describing the character.  And, let’s be honest, it’s makes a bit of sense in that regard – nobody likes to listen to a generic crowd of people.  Immersion is something that generally takes shows to another level, but generic and boring characters make it difficult to immerse into.

But I think we throw around this “generic” label around too quickly.  Character mentality, especially on the level of anime and video games, are often exaggerated and we can easily lose when we see subtle characters.  Characters who, while well-defined, don’t act extremely to the point of parody on their character and aren’t shown with one easy to understand character quirk.  Because of this, they seem easy to mould, but really act on much more subtle characterizations.  This is a little hard to follow, so I’ll try to explain it in another way: in a case study.  I can think of no better choice to highlight this than with the character of Cordelia from Fire Emblem: Awakening.  A game, sure, but I think this one suits the argument fairly well.  Cordelia is a character sometimes accused of being bland and a Mary Sue cut out designed for male players to throw their lust and pity upon and for females players to mirror their own frustrations.

To recap for those unfamiliar with the game: Cordelia is a soldier in the game’s focused on army.  She’s effectively the an ace at everything: known as one of the best fighters and a tireless worker.  She heaps all compliments off herself and…well, that’s about it.  Aside from her massive unrequited (and by game mechanics, impossible to requite) love of the prince she serves under.  And, if you listen to the dissenting opinion, that’s about all she is: a massive stereotype and copy of an older character.  Very generic, very bland.

Have I mentioned my love of red hair yet?

That, plus an excellent strategic character.

Of course, this obviously sets up where I’m heading: I definitely have the opposite opinion.  In fact, I’d argue one of the most mentally interesting characters in the game…just that compared to the rest of the crowd in this game, which primarily features a lot of characters defined by their primary characteristic, it’s harder to identify.

She is a perfectionist.  This part is plainly obvious.  In a lot of her conversations, others will mention that she is excellent at what she does, but she will fail to recognize it or wash it off.  She is also an excellent and capable person and she knows it.  In a conversation with another character, she’ll point out that her mentoring others will be of no use, since they can’t effectively use anything she will teach them.  Additionally, she’s a type A personality.  For those unfamiliar, type A people, in that spectrum, are tightly wound people who will work hard and will sometimes take on more than they can handle.  And Cordelia fits the bill for almost all these types of traits.  Finally, and most critically, she doesn’t value herself.  In almost all her conversations, she doesn’t ask for the help of others, but merely relies on her own ability.  In a couple of conversations, she even admits that she actively does this (stating that it feels like a loss to even talk to someone about her feelings).

Building on all these, we can say that she values what others say about her more than what she thinks about herself.  In fact, I can extend this even further to the basic Myer-Briggs Typology and classify her as a fairly solid version of an ISFJ personality.  Some of the highlights for an ISFJ is that they are service-oriented individuals who live to please.  They are practical people who can take care of everyday needs and will take it upon themselves to handle it with effective organizational skills.  They are committed to single individuals romantically and will be devoted to their “one and only”, far past what seems logical.  This can further extend into their day-to-day life, where they will defend their friends even if it doesn’t make sense.  While determining this, I didn’t even notice some of the later comments, such as “isn’t sensitive to their own needs”, and this almost becomes a self-writing article: the traits the classic ISFJ has almost always coincide with the personality portrayed by Cordelia.  Yes, she has a quirk, but the bland personality behind is gone!  With a little reasoning and reading some of the subtleties in personality, we have gone from a character who has very generic descriptors and basic concepts to one which is fairly intricate.

So, what exactly IS the difference between being bland and being subtle?  It’s all about their intricate actions.  A bland character’s actions will never fly in what you know about them.  You, knowing a single trait, can almost always predict their actions.  A subtle character, on the other hand, will be one which will occasionally surprise you with odd wording or action.  Cordelia’s admission of struggle being a “loss” would be an excellent example.  However, as the name suggests, subtle characters are subtle.  Unlike often easily defined character in anime, they will be acting without strong emphasis on the meaning of the action.

I’ll pull up an example for the show Irresponsible Captain Tyler, using the character mentioned in the title.   This show is almost purely about using the intricacies of the main character to create arguments about one of the largest questions about the show: Is Tyler a genius or an outright idiot?

Or maybe just really, really bored and trolling us all.

Almost every episode puts Tyler and the characters around him into situations where Tyler’s actions will surely have a huge impact on the crew.  There is plenty of fuel for both sides of the debate (as well as a third, which suggests that he’s a spiritual figure designed to teach the rest of the crew to relax).  However, it’s important to just pick up the details.  For the single episode he acts serious, he becomes an inspiring figure.  Some of his plans don’t make sense even if you are a tactical genius.  His mind is very deep and at least self-aware of the persona he’s putting out.  All these points, while they don’t settle the question, certainly become excellent speculative fuel and it’s a great practice in learning to identify character subtlety to identify both sides of this type of debate.  And if you’re interested in practising recognizing subtle character traits (or spotting details which go into building them), I’d highly recommend watching the series.

Ultimately, where this is heading is to not look at characters at face value.  The quick and easy definition doesn’t always determine whether or not a character can be lampooned for being too simple and bland or if their life is very subdued and less of a caricature than some of the other characters.   Going through their actions with a fine tooth comb and seeing if there are any irregularities in their action to go off of is the first step.  After that, the debate of their personality can be looked at: if nothing interesting or unusual pops up, then they may be more generic…but if their actions and statements don’t always stay in line with an obvious stereotype, then there is something more working under the surface…