Anime Guilt

The Worst.  Human Scum.  Trash Monster.

These are the Twitter display names of some of my friends.  One of them is currently advertising his purity level, a thing that some script spit out at him by applying an RNG to his screenname.  He appears to be extremely impure, which prompts him to dejectedly agree and publicly shame himself, as best he can in 140 characters.  Even though this sort of thing is old hat in AniTwitter by now, I can’t help but scratch my head and feel puzzled by it.  These dudes are nice people, even good ones as far as I can tell.  Yet, they, like so many anime fans, frequently engage in open displays of self-flagellation on social networks.  Why?  What do anime fans hope to gain by this and what might they inadvertently lose?

First, let’s zero in on what anime fans might feel guilty about.  In recent years, there has been a sizeable backlash against the notion of the guilty pleasure, but perhaps this idea is subconsciously at work in anime fandom.  If you consume media, then at some point you have experienced a work that you feel is intellectually beneath you.  Maybe its worldview is childish, its comedy is sophomoric, or its goals strike you as mere silliness.  Such work becomes a guilty pleasure when the viewer, fully aware of all this, enjoys the thing anyway.  “Man, the depiction of war in this show is far too black and white, but giant robots punch each other!”  “The dialogue here can be so insipid, but the boys are hot, so…”

What happens if you start to feel that most, or even all, the media you take in are guilty pleasures?  A number of things might make the anime fan feel that her hobby is intellectually beneath her.  The West is still coming to terms with the idea that animation can be enjoyed—as a “real” and serious hobby—by grown-ups.  Most anime’s target audience skews young, so perhaps fans feel increasingly ashamed of watching entertainment intended for teenagers or kids, as they get older and more capable of recognizing a thing’s target demographic.  However, while this explanation may hold true for some, it strikes me as an incomplete diagnosis of what is happening in the community[i]-at-large.  The fact is that lots of anime fans who participate in self-shaming are members of anime’s target audience.  If the majority of anime fans are teenagers, it doesn’t seem to add up that they would feel guilty for liking content intended for their age group.

In my opinion, the biggest reason anime fans are want to feel guilt and/or shame about their hobby is its sexuality.  Anime is a highly sexualized medium.  Japan is very good at drawing and animating hot girls and cute boys, and anime routinely highlights and explores the sexuality of its characters (at times respectfully; at other times exploitatively).

But it’s not only the degree but also the kind of sexuality in anime that tends to make fans blush.  The age[ii] of the anime characters whose sexuality is being depicted seems to be a sticking point for many, regardless of whether or not such depictions result in sexual feelings within the viewer.  Modern anime are inclined to fetishize the beauty of youth, often featuring characters in their late teens (or at times those appearing to be early/pre-teens) as sexual beings.  Again, even if the sexual depiction of such characters doesn’t happen to create feelings of sexual stimulation within the viewer, the very fact that these characters exist and are depicted in this manner is enough to shame some anime fans.

Perhaps such shame isn’t a fan’s natural response to this sort of sexuality; let’s say they just tune it out.  Predictably, there is no shortage of voices on the internet who openly decry anime and its fans, painting it as gross and them as pedophiles.  These stereotypes are easy enough to refute, and the tacit assumption that the presence of sexuality within something entails that those who experience that something universally feel the same, extreme way about it…well, that’s fairly simple to defuse as well.  But, if sidestepping the issue is so easy, then why is anime guilt so common in the online community?  Evidently, the problem is more than merely a logical one.  The plurality and incessancy of the negative voices and their messages are able to penetrate even the thickest of nerd skins.  Some of these voices come from within the anime fan community itself, which seems well-and-truly misguided.

To recap: it’s possible for an anime fan to have anime guilt bubble up from within themselves but also thrust upon them by others—both external and internal to their own fan community.  Some fans fight it on both fronts.  It seems natural to ask: how is fandom coping with all this?  We come back around, full circle, to Trash Monster and company.  The solution for these guys is to get out in front of all the bullshit and ironically embrace the insults in an attempt to deflect the negativity via self-deprecating humor.  While this approach may functionally work, I feel it is wrongheaded and wholly unnecessary.  What’s the goal here?  This tactic seems to assume that the fans will (indirectly) eventually take the sting out of insults like “perv” and “pedo.”  I can’t see this happening.   Self-identifying that way only reinforces negative messages and stereotypes people have of anime and its fans.

OK, I know what you’re thinking.  Here’s the part where he tells us what we ought to be doing.  Well, that’s not going to happen.  This is certainly the place in the essay into which such ethical prescriptions would fit…but I can’t.  I’m not here to praise or blame the content of anime or fan behavior in response to this content.  The kind of nuance required to treat such a complex set of moral issues, as well as my own complicated feelings about them, places the move beyond the scope of this writing (and beyond the acumen of this writer).  I don’t want to tell anyone how they ought to feel toward sexuality in media or what they should do about such feelings.  Rather, this piece’s sole intention is to serve as a reflection on the phenomenon I have observed in the community.

To that end, I’d like to speculate about the long-term effect anime guilt on the fandom.  I don’t think it’s consequences begin and end with the individual fan.  Rampant, public self-shaming is an issue effecting the anime community-at-large because each member of that community, whether they like it or not, represents that community to the online world.  Many citizens of that world are potential fans, folks who haven’t already made up their mind about anime or the anime community.  What exactly are we telling them being a member of our community entails?  I’m not sure this question is something anime fans ponder very often, if at all.

When I became a fan in the late 90’s, anime guilt wasn’t part of the package.  Being an anime fan meant that you liked cartoons from Japan, these things that were kinda different from their U.S. counterparts, and that was as far as it went.  If the outward-facing fandom openly wallowed in self-shaming…I’m not sure I’d have become a part of this community that I hold so dear today.  New fans are the life-blood of our community, and we should do all we can to remove barriers to entry.

Earlier, I stated that I wasn’t judging anime fans, and that remains true; however, I would like to demand something from them.  I think we should ask ourselves some questions.  “How important to me is publicly wearing self-shame online?  How important to me are the current and future anime communities?  Do I value self-identifying as a ‘shameful perv’ so much that I don’t care if it turns away potential fans?  Do I value the future of the anime community more than my desire to express how terrible I think that I am?”  As it stands, I can’t help but believe that the degree and kind of anime guilt displayed online turns away potential fans.

This all probably reads like I’m mentally wagging my finger at you as I type this, but I assure you I’m not.  As I stated earlier, this article isn’t meant a condemnation of anyone’s feelings, and, believe it or not, it’s really not a moral judgment about our online behavior either.  I just want us as a community to realize that we have some control of how people perceive us.  The current perception and treatment of the anime fan community didn’t just happen by accident; they are the result of repeated and intentional fan behavior[iii].  Should the community decide it doesn’t like how it’s perceived, it can and should also behave intentionally with a long-term view to alter this perception.  On a purely logical level, it’s not necessary that anime fandom come with shame in tow, and if we as a community do not want such a stigma, then it is entirely up to us to demonstrate that the stigma is undeserved.

But, maybe you don’t care for the notion of community responsibility.  Perhaps you are completely cool with how the community is perceived.  Or, maybe you do, but you care more about self-identifying via shame.  This is all fine.  In fact, perhaps most of the anime fan community feels this way, and, if that’s the case, then it’s on the path it needs to be on.  Let the community decide these things for itself.  But, let’s do decide.  I just don’t want us to look around five years from now and go, “How’d we get here?”[iv]

The argument I put forward here is likely unconvincing to many, but if it starts some dialogue within the community, and maybe cause a few people to engage in some self-reflection, then I am satisfied.


Notes:

[i] Throughout the essay I will use the term “anime fan community.”  I am referring to the English-speaking anime fan community, many of who congregate online on forums and social networks.

[ii] The cultural differences at play here are vast.  Know that the author is very aware of them, but also know that they are beyond the scope of this essay.

[iii] It is likely that there will always be content in anime that makes Westerners raise their eyebrows; however, to pin one hundred percent of the current perception of anime fans on the product and zero percent on the fandom can’t be right.  Both are responsible.  How much the community is responsible for its image can be debated, but the author holds that it is at least somewhat responsible.

[iv] Just a point of emphasis:  people supposedly only remain anime fans for two years.  So, rather than thinking about things in terms of creating a new fan boom, try to think of my argument as putting forward a way of preserving fandom.

14 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Since anecdote is at least somewhat relevant to this discussion let me share my experience with public shaming. I have never actually encountered hostility towards anime or a negative perception of it outside of the anime fandom itself, beyond that which is directed generally at “nerdy” pastimes (scratch that, I saw that “Trumps supporters are just no lives who masturbate to anime” clip an MSNBC a few months back, but that was just hilarious). Now this may be indicative of me simply to much time here and too little elsewhere, but I only really got into anime in 11th grade, and only to a strong degree in 12th, so I don’t think that mere isolation is the cause of this. I find self-deprecation genuinely funny, whether it be towards anime or any other aspect of myself. Perhaps this is the cause for much of it within the community, or maybe I’m just a minority. Take what you will from it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I understand what you’re saying, we view self-depreciation as being funny because it’s safe. But as the Subtle Doctor pointed out, it’s not really as ‘safe’ as we think – I personally believe it is detracting of the fandom, and that we need to take ourselves serious, even to a fault (but ever self aware) in order to find where we really stand, both in the fandom and as representatives of the fandom.
      It’s a hard ideal for people to latch onto, after all, this is ‘just anime’, but once upon a time, music was ‘just noise’.

      Liked by 1 person

    • There’s no doubt that some anime fans (not exempting myself from this claim) trash themselves publicly as a form of self-deprecating humor and that’s as far as it goes. But, I believe that other fans engaging in self-shaming and are actually experiencing shame, guilt and depression. Sometimes that’s because of anime, other times the anime part is incidental. That part saddens me, as someone who is friends with such people. Then there’s this whole other issue of how that looks from outside the community, to people far enough away not to get the joke. My argument is that, for these people, the rampant self-flagellation can be a big turn off and, from our point of view, an unnecessary roadblock to entering the fandom.

      Like

  2. I’d like to try and make a few points regarding this topic, although they might be a bit disorganized. Apologies for the long comment incoming.

    First of all, I’ve wondered if Eva could have, at least in part, helped shape the fandom’s nature. I suspect for a lot of people, it was an entry show and one of the ones that made them fall in love with anime, and it wouldn’t be surprising for its subject matter to naturally attract depressive, self-loathing people. In that sense, you could say it’s shame that brought some people to anime, not anime fandom that created shame. Oregairu and Utena perhaps played a similar role, although they might not be high-profile enough for that.

    Second of all, with regards to certain shows like K-ON!!, Idolmaster, Clannad, or Madoka, they seem to attract a primarily male fanbase, despite not being typically masculine. Whenever I’ve seen these shows brought up in contexts where people are mostly unfamiliar with anime, the automatic assumption is that there must be something perverse hidden behind that enjoyment, since surely men are unable to enjoy “feminine” stories innocently. Pedophilia, particularly, is brought up frequently. This ties back to sexuality, although I’d argue that some of these shows don’t necessarily feature that much sexuality (it’s been a while, but I don’t remember Madoka being perverse), and that it may have more to do with how it goes against traditional gender roles. I imagine for some male fans, this may create a feeling of being profoundly misunderstood and a mentality of “us vs them”, which manifests as passive-aggressivity in the form of public flagellation.

    Finally, I’m not sure it’s so odd for teenagers to feel shame about liking things targeted at them. Teenagers tend to be in a hurry to grow up and want to prove themselves as being very mature and adult.

    I’m not certain whether I’m right about any of this. But I do think the issue is pretty complicated, and I’m doubtful it’ll go away any time soon. Unfortunately so, since it makes most online anime communities toxic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the outstanding comment. I like all your points, but I think your second point in particular is on the money and something that seems so obvious to me after reading it that I don’t know why I didn’t touch in it in the article. Guys can absolutely feel ashamed, not actively but in certain contexts, about liking things like PreCure. Perhaps that feeling is even amplified if they like such shows for the story and characters and sexuality doesn’t factor into it for them. They might feel the need to be ever-ready to defend their taste and to take great pains to point out that it has nothing to do with sex. That would certainly heighten my anxiety🙂.

      Like

  3. Ah! I’m glad someone is pointing this out.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially in relation to depression and self-loathing, where the shame and guilt felt is very real and horribly powerful (as I can attest to from my past experience back before I watched a single anime show). I can’t help but think the public act of displaying one’s shame is either an attempt at “corrective punishment”, a consolatory yet despairing expression of “at least I’m aware that I’m horrible…”, or a small cry for help. Probably a bit of all three plus other reasons I haven’t considered. It hurts to know that people might be feeling these things.

    I’ll have to arrange my thoughts on the topic more… mostly on the individual level as opposed to what it means for the whole community..

    On a different note, it’s fascinating to see some linguistic reappropriation happening in the anime sphere with those who aren’t actually feeling guilt or shame.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve gotten a lot of response to the tune of, “People are just joking/being ironic. Don’t take memeing so seriously!” While I do understand that some of this stuff is all in good fun (self-deprecating humor from secure individuals), I have to confess that the original reason for my exploration of this topic was the empathy I feel for AniTwitterians I know who actually do feel like ‘scum.” There are lots of reasons depressed/anxious people experience depression and anxiety. Anime shouldn’t be one of those reasons. Even though my piece talks a lot about community responsibility, and I absolutely mean all of that and think it’s important, my empathy for individual people is actually the driving force behind this essay.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good essay thing. I don’t think I’m that deeply grounded in the anime community but I do see that stuff a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Allison.

      It saddens me to see this stuff. On a visceral, immediate level I don’t want my friends to feel shame for something they don’t need to feel shame about. In terms of the big picture, this stuff could do real damage to the anime community in general.

      Can’t all nerds just love each other???

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s a perfect storm. Get a subculture full of social outcasts, constantly expose them to negativity from within their own subculture (Often from one group of people in the subculture to another), at the same time devalue positivity and dismiss enthusiastic people as “obsessed,” and what you end up with is a group within that subculture that’s internalized negativity to a point where they’re uncomfortable genuinely expressing enthusiasm and so when they do express enthusiasm, it must be from behind a veil of ironic enjoyment masquerading as “self-awareness.”

    I think at the core of the issue, the bottom line is that none of these people would feel the need to call themselves “trash’ for liking the wrong cartoons if nobody from within the community had called them “trash’ for liking the wrong cartoons and actually meant it. In an environment where it’s deemed okay for some people to disparage other people based on differences in preferred media, it quickly becomes easier to just agree and amplify, rather than stand up for oneself. This goes doubly when the people being disparaged are social outcasts in the first place, and triply when they haven’t practiced articulating why they enjoy what they enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For a long time, I’ve been quite sad about this sort of otaku-on-otaku crime. I used to be one of those fans that thought I was watching “the good shows” (or at least the worthwhile bad ones) and different kinds of anime fans were bad fans who were watching stuff that was at best immaterial, at worst trash. Then, I started writing about anime, which led me to start hanging around and talking to other anime fans on social networks. This really opened my eyes. Turns out that (a) I’m not as smart as I thought I was and (b) fans of shows that I deemed bad can cogently articulate why those shows are actually good and important. As I got to know more kinds of fans, I got convinced to try new stuff. I gained valuable perspective from these experiences and re-learned a lesson I had applied elsewhere in my life: different perspectives are quite valuable and enriching. If its members would take the time to learn from each other, the anime community could become even better than it currently is!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t think this is something unique to anime fandom. You see this self-loathing in other fandoms too; it just manifests in different ways (often through lashing out at either the industry or at other fandom members). After all, the majority of heavy internet-users are introverts, who seem to be, as a whole, less confident and more inclined towards self-deprecation. I mean, this article is coming from someone running a podcast whose title translates to “it’s probably bad.”

    Speaking of Warui Deshou, Shadon mentioned something in either the Elfen Lied or After Hours episode about how he’s given up on trying to explain or justify the weird stuff in anime to others and saying “you don’t have to get it; I’m not looking for your approval.” I feel like there’s also some of this attitude in “anime guilt.” The self-loathing tendency of anime fandom might be guilt, but it’s not shame. Shame you hide and keep secret. If you’re referring to yourself as trash in your Twitter name or bio, you’re wearing it on your sleeve. That’s something you’re owning, maybe even something you have pride in. It’s a way we say “yes, we’re weird and cringeworthy and some of us are into some pretty messed up shit, but we’re not afraid to admit it. This is for us, not for you. Now leave us alone.” And with how prevalent it is, it really is kind of a “we” thing rather than a “me” thing. Maybe we’re trash, but we’re all trash together. And from some previous discussions I’ve had with you, I know you like the idea of broken people attracting each other.

    Is this exclusive? Maybe a bit. But when compared to fandoms like comics or video games, where there’s a clear sense of superiority that comes along with the exclusion, I think it’s a lot healthier form of exclusion. It’s the difference between a sign on the fandom’s metaphorical lawn that reads “Beware of Dog” and one that reads “Trespassers will be Shot.” Neither are particularly welcoming, but one’s “you can enter, but it’s at your own risk” while the other is “don’t enter.”

    Of course, there’s legitimate guilt and shame mixed in with the proud, tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation as well. I talked with you the other day about some things I’m less than proud of. And that stuff’s maybe more what you’re getting at. But I don’t think that all of the self-shaming is inherently bad, especially when the alternative is shaming others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • See, the thing about my podcast title is that I’m completely comfortable with its truth. The fact that I produce a shitty radio show and also watch or play stuff that some people consider questionable…that’s separate from who I am. I don’t derive my self-worth from these things. I’m not saying they aren’t important, just that I don’t dump so much of my identity into them.

      Now, where it gets more complicated is when people begin shaming you for what you like. They are doing the work of bundling your identity and your media consumption. It can be easy to fall in line with that logic when it is presented in the way it’s often presented. Still, once you recognize the fallacious conflation of ideas, it’s easier to re-translate criticisms and also to set critics straight.

      OK, the “we” shaming. This is exactly what I think might turn people away. I’m interested in new people, particularly new kinds of people with different perspectives, joining our fandom and contributing to what makes the community special. We are artificially limiting ourselves on this front if the metaphorical sign we put on our fictitious lawn (to ape your analogy) is “Come Feel Ashamed With Us.” Why don’t something more positive? Or something about how dope anime is?

      And, I do stand by the term “shame.” I don’t think changing your twitter handle to “Impure Anime Scum” and talking with some like-minded people really constitutes being open and unashamed. I could be wrong about that, but, from therapy sessions, my own experience is that you can very much feel shame and also still talk about/admit to something.

      I also do not believe in the shame self or shame others dichotomy. I’m not saying you do either, just that there are copious alternatives.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never really understood this, mainly because I’ve always viewed Anime as simply Pop-Romanticism. When you had all those guys in the past painting their Greek nudes based on the myths of Ovid and Homer, or the Japanese woodcut printers painting their favorite female literary characters, it’s not really any different. Then again, fanboy-ism is always more culturally accepted if you’re fanboy-ing for the classics.

    As to how to defuse the situation, you simply have to have enough knowledge to counter any claim. If anyone asks me about the sexuality of Anime, I’ll simply point out the fact that Picasso and Dali loved to draw dicks everywhere in their paintings, and those works are selling millions at the auction houses. Manet even straight up drew a painting of a vagina just for shits and giggles. If they talk about the pre-pubescent looking girls aspect, I’ll point them to Egon Schiele and Munch’s Puberty.

    Of course it has probably something to do with sentiments about ‘foreign culture’. This isn’t new either. In Dostoyevsky’s Demons, he made a complete caricature of a character who was a complete fanboy for the French and would always lace his speech with French terms.

    Takashi Murakami totally exploited this and went on to tout his style as neo-pop art, which is why he’s one of the richest guys in the art world today, even working with Kanye West. Essentially he put together all the most outrageous and decorative parts of the art form and turned it into a fashion industry. Many of his artists also do lolicon art, but they weaponize the supposed ‘guilt’ to tout it to the masses as self-commentary about a post-war Japan and its degeneration, and the escapism implicit in Japanese culture as a whole. One of them even had an exhibit which was his own messy hikikomori bedroom.

    The answer: be like Murakami. Exploit your guilt and turn it into sweet bucks.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: