The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 3

[This is the final part of the women studies paper I wrote on hentai.  You can find Part 1, on the definition of hentai, here, and Part 2, on the comparison of hentai to live action pornography, here.  And, once again, the material covered in this part is strictly NSFW.]

While it may not be as prevalent or have the same tradition in our society that live action pornography does, there is no mistaking that hentai is here and is accessible, highly so if we consider the role of the Internet in its dispersion.  We have seen in this essay that its similarities to live action pornography mean it could have similar impacts on consumers, and these impacts may be further influenced by the simulacrum nature of hentai girls and the fantasies they offer.  Even if these texts are read as humorous, their situatedness in our society, in our public discourse that attempts to both normalize sex and keep it hidden, suggests that even harmless appearing cartoons can reinforce the ideology of male domination if it remains unchallenged.

This last point, which constitutes my main argument in this essay, cannot be emphasized enough.  Our society is different than Japan’s.  Japan does not have the Christian, especially Puritanical Christian, perspective on sex.  Their culture conceptualizes sex as more natural then the Puritan culture upon which most of the United States’ ideas and laws are based.  As scholars have pointed out, in non-hentai anime and manga, it is quite common for women and men to be shown nude, with sexual innuendo, and to be directed towards children.  When those series are brought to America, they are edited, such as the Tenchi Muyo series “dressing up” the nudity of the women who were engaged in the traditional custom of public bathing (the non-edited version is shown below).

 

However, although our society wants to keep sex int he bedroom (and sometimes not even there), our pop culture abounds with the use of sexual imagery, from entertainment venues to advertisements.  Sex is used to get our attention because we don’t expect it to be there; sex is to be kept hidden, so any flash of a peep-show, any tantalizing glimpse behind the curtain, draws our attention.  the tantalizing is seen in the rise of sexual content in television, music videos, movies, and advertisements.  It’s available in emails, on smart phones, on the billboard you pass driving to and from work or school.  It saturates our society, and yet we don’t talk about it.  Sex education is replaced with abstinence only ideologies.  Parents are embarrassed to talk to their kids until after their kids may be able to teach them a thing or two.  Our youth need answers to their questions, and that’s one reason they go online.  The Internet has become a de facto sex educator in a postmodern world where the media can makes things appear to be real simply by representing them.

And one source of information they will find online is hentai.  While there is no study I could find detailing the frequency with which today’s youth actively consume hentai, there are indications that they know it’s out there and do go to it — such as the entirety of the 4chan community — although not as commonly as adult consumers.  There has also been research into the extent to which adolescents access online live action pornography.  There is even some indication that this group of teenagers is at the most risk for not being engaged in a balanced discussion about such, thus making them potentially more vulnerable to the messages encoded in pornography, live action or hentai.

Even if they are not searching for hentai, an anime or manga fan surfing online to find information about their favorite series may come upon a hentai depiction related to that series.  Of course, search engines have parental safety features to filter out such content, but they must be engaged, and their children must not be able to circumvent them.  And even then, there are the distributors that sell the material, and not to mention friends whose parents may not be as educated and engaged.

It can be entirely possible to make certain that a child never views pornography, live action or hentai.  But does this solve the problem?  As I’ve discussed, the discourses of male domination over women has not disappeared despite the research conducted on pornography.  The fact that it is being imported shows that importers believe there is a market for it in our society and culture.  The contradiction in our society — especially for women, who are taught to be sexy while also being non-sexual — plays out in the representation of hentai girls.  It’s in the lolicon, who are supposed to be innocent, virginal, and yet experienced when all is said and done.  It’s in the women who aren’t supposed to like sex because of society’s values and thus don’t ant to be sluts, who are forced to have sex and then find this painful sexual experience to be highly pleasurable.  Hentai, then, is just another example of the pervasiveness of this discourse in our society: a discourse that needs to be engaged with on its fundamental level, not just in its representations, before it can be fully challenged and changed.

It is important to study hentai as a symptom of our society’s continual propagation of a discourse that reinforces an inequality in the power status between genders, and ultimately between people.  It both shapes the male gaze that objectifies women and is shaped by it.  We fear the effects of this discourse even as it normalizes this relationship.  Our pop culture continues to turn out the discourse, of the sexy non-sexual, of the dominant male, of the lolicon, even as our public discourse grows more and more vociferous about it.  Where is the concerted challenge to this normalization of a contradictory approach to sex?  Not in hentai.

It could be so easy to dismiss those who consume and create hentai simply as perverts, as the word denotes, and to hold them responsible for their actions.  But this is what our society wants us to do: marginalize them and forget them, keep sex hidden from the public eye so that we can continue selling products with the tantalization of the peep-show.  But those in the margin are exactly the ones we should attend to, as they are the cases in which we can see the contradictions of our society take their toil.  These are the individuals who go to hentai for some desire that is not being fulfilled by society, and because society is not talking to them, helping them with this desire and instead calling them perverts, these are the individuals who may lash out.  Having outlets for sexual “deviance” may help those interested in such desires to not lash out — hentai may then be filling such a role.  And finding a community of like-minded individuals, such as those at 4chan, could only help to further the perception away from perversion.

Does that mean that the degradation of women seen in hentai is acceptable, if it fulfills this role?  I by no means am advocating that position.  Instead, I am advocating the need to engage in dialogue with those who consume and create hentai, as well as live action pornography.  If hentai is a symptom or an expression of a negative discourse affecting the relations between men and women in our society, then it should be investigated as such, and not dismissed as some harmless cartoon pornography that only perverts would find interesting.  To dismiss hentai is to do as much damage as our society’s general dismissal of sex as a natural act.  We need more dialogue, not less, to meet the challenges of dismantling these negative and contradictory discourses.

About CarrieLynn D. Reinhard

I am an explorer of pop culture, technology, mass media, and human nature. I want to make sense of how we all make sense of the mediated worlds that surrounds us.

Posted on August 19, 2012, in Anime/Manga, Audience/Reception Studies, Critical/Cultural Studies, Fandom, Text Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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