Shounen and seinen anime along with traditional film noir and neo-noir historically have problematic portrayals of women in their stories.
I think it’s something I need to address when talking about the Big O. It wasn’t something I intended to talk about, but the more of the show I watch, the more I realize that it is a problem.
But first, let’s get a few things out of the way. I’m not a film critic. I’m not an expert in the realm of feminist theory. I’m just a 40-something guy sitting behind a computer in an anonymous room in an anonymous place. If you want to criticize me for being unqualified or underqualified to talk about this stuff, you’re probably right.
Film Noir’s troubled history with women
Now that the disclaimer out of the way, lets talk a little about film noir and its more modern cousin neo-noir. Coming out of the Great Depression and in the middle of World War II filmmakers started making movies that featured a man operating in a brutal, violent and uncaring world. Sometimes he’s cast adrift into it. Sometimes he chooses it. Either way it’s a world where all of the institutions around him — family, church, the government — are either corrupt or out of reach.
It takes a lot of its influences from the hardboiled detective stores of the time like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.
Now, I’m of the camp that believes film noir stretches between the 1940s to about 1958. But neo-noir, it’s newer cousin, takes a lot of the same tropes and brings them into a more modern and even futuristic settings. Some of the more often cited examples are Chinatown and Blade Runner.
One thing holds true no matter what time frame it is. These movies don’t treat women well.
They are either virgins. Basicially, women who accept that they’re supposed to do what they’re told, and are seen as pure and wholesome.
Or they’re femme fatales. Women of ambition, who use their sexuality as a weapon, and whose power is threatening to the main male lead. They are often defeated and humiliated at the end of the story.
Now, I love noir in all of it’s forms, but even I have to admit, it is fiction written by men and for men and can, at times, make even evil men seem noble, but make always seem ambitious women evil.
Shounen and Seinen anime’s problematic relationship with women
Shounen and seinen anime’s poor relationship with women characters is so broad and deep that I really don’t know where to start. This is fiction that is explicitly geared toward boys, teenage boys and men.
In it’s more brutal times, main male leads in Kazuo Koike’s stories will often use rape as a means of punishment. So I was looking for examples of this, and I came across the Wikipedia entry for Crying Freeman, which goes:
“One of his killings is witnessed by Emu Hino, a lonely and beautiful Japanese artist. Knowing he must kill her, she paints his portrait and waits for him to come. When he does so, she tells him that she is tired of being alone and wishes to end her life. She asks for a favor before he kills her – to make love to her, so that she will not die as a virgin. He grants her wish, but finds he cannot kill her and they fall in love”
So yeah… that’s some real male power fantasy right there.
Over the years, it’s gotten sort of better, but still there was still a lot of shounen and seinen shows out there where there are either no female characters or all of the female characters are defined by their relationship to men.
One of my favorite examples of this is Oh, My Goddess! A story about a milquetoast hero who gains the affection of three powerful goddesses.
There are some notable exceptions like Makoto Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, but even then those characters often feel more like male stand-ins, and there are rarely any more female characters in the shows.
The Big O’s problematic relationship with women
I spent some time looking through The Big O archive at the interviews over there, and I came away with this quote from Keiichi Sato, one of the show’s creators:
“You know, women are often more mature than men of the same age. Women in anime have often been the image of men’s sweet adorations, but that’s not real. Some men may feel that women in the The Big O are harsh, but I think that’s what we were aiming for.”
So I think in a lot of ways he’s right. Both Dorothy and Angel are harsher than traditional anime tropes at the time. This was the age of El-Hazard and Oh, My Goddess!
To be fair, it’s also the age of Cowboy Beebop, Serial Experiments Lain and Record of Lodoss War, so I’m not sure if Angel and Dorothy are completely out of whack for the time.
The problem is The Big O‘s creators traded one set of baggage for another. They set aside the overly eager women of traditional shounen anime, and substituted in the tropes from neo-noir. Dorothy is the virgin and Angel is the femme fatal.
Dorothy, for all of her snarky lines, is a character that is defined by the man in her life. First, it’s the elder Waynewright, who created her to be a replacement for his daughter.
What does she do immediately after losing one father figure? She finds another in the form of Roger Smith
She has all of the tools to be independent. She has a talent for singing. She doesn’t need to eat. The only reason she would need to work is for personal fulfillment and to have a place to live.
So her unspoken path to fufillment is servitude. She never acts for herself. Even in her most independent moments, she is doing it to help Roger.
R. Dorothy Waynewright is the perfect housewife.
(A note from iniksbane from the future: When I initially wrote this I had only watched through episode 7. There are some things in episode 8 that might make me reevaluate this position, but I think the case is strong enough as a whole that I didn’t want to trash this entire train of thought. I will have a post coming out tomorrow about my reservations.)
On the other hand, we have Angel. The mysterious and beautiful woman who opposes Roger Smith, Robo-Michael, protector of the one commandment of Paradigm City.
In episode 7, we learn Angel wants to find plans and information about the past. Not only does she want to plumb the depths of Paradigm City’s memories, she wants to do it for personal gain. Roger Smith preaches about the city’s one rule, by suggesting that she doesn’t come from there.
“It’s common that people who are born here and continue to live here don’t usually think about getting their memories back.”
“People inside and outside of the domes are able to live here because they’ve made a point not to think about it.”
Still she won’t be swayed from her course. So she needs to be put in her place. When he is given the choice of eliminating her chance to get at those memories, he takes it. In essence, he takes an action to hurt her and by doing so put her in her place.
Where does that leave us?
For everyone that is prepared to hammer out how I’m panting an entire genre with a broad brush. You’re right. I am. There are women characters in shounen shows that don’t just need a man to get by. There are characters with self-determination that aren’t continually crushed by a male-dominated world.
They just aren’t in The Big O.
This is more of a problem because of how few characters there are in the show. There are four main characters — Roger, Dorothy, Angel and Dastun — and one of the main female leads exists to serve men and the other exists to be desired and tamed by men.
Now, nearly 1,500 words later, we’re left with two questions. The first is, “Could the show have been done differently?”
Yes and no. Roger Smith could have been a woman, but this is show designed to sell toys to young boys and men. Having a woman robot pilot possibly could hurt the chances of that happening. Or at the very least, we get characters like Rei and Asuka, which may have been fine.
They could have made Dorothy an equal or partner in the business. But this is a show about Roger being a bad negotiator and a good robot pilot, so that’s not going to happen. They could have made Angel right, and Roger wrong, but that would fly in the face of the entire rest of the series.
I think they had options, but I’m not sure if they would or could have taken them. Anime was and is a commercial venture and the business realities might have prevented the types of changes necessary.
The second question is, “Does this make this a bad show?”
After spending this long bagging on the show, you might be surprised when I say, “No.” It’s really easy to equate liking a show with it being perfect. I like The Big O, but it has its flaws, and how it treats women is one of them.
Thanks for reading, and I would love to hear from anyone else out there. Do you think I’m being unfair? Leave a comment. Think I’m being fair? Leave a comment. Had a really nice lunch and you want to share pictures of it? Leave a comment.