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.
[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.