The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 2

[In part 1 of this 2006 women studies paper, I discussed what hentai is and how it has grown in consumption in the United States; so if you are first entering this report via this part, you should pop on over there first.  In this part of the report, I compare hentai to live action pornography.  Again, this is absolutely rated NSFW.]

Is it different than live action pornography?

Theories of what is pornography began to crystallize in the 1970s due to the work of American feminists and their analysis of how women are represented on film. ¬†In particular is the work of Laura Mulvey in theorizing how positioning and objectifying women in film serve the scopophilic male gaze that receives pleasure by its voyeuristic and yet controlling gaze of women. ¬†Pornography is largely held as an “art form” that objectifies the female figure, positioning women as submissive sexual objects presented for the sole purpose of providing pleasure to men, whether in the narrative with the women or in the audience consuming the narrative. ¬†Women are fragmented by the camera or the comic panels so that the focus for the viewer is on specific body parts to elicit arousal. ¬†Oftentimes women are being dominated by the male, in a heterosexual coupling, or by a masculinized woman in a homosexual coupling. ¬†Regardless of whether a man is actually present in the frame or not, by depicting women as objects, as dehumanized and subjected to a dominant other’s desires, they rendered powerless, denied agency, and thus not a threat to the presumed male viewer, who is left to gave over the spectacle without anxiety of being discovered, castigated, and ultimately metaphorically castrated.

According to Andrea Dworkin and other social commentators, the themes of power, hierarchy, objectification, submission and violence that course through live action pornography are just as discernible in hentai.  Examples for this essay focus on the text of online websites as the most accessible entry into hentai.  The content offered in these sites provide texts that objectify and dominate women, with the overall design of the sites presenting women as objects to entice the presumed male viewer into entering the online cathouse.

It is common for these sites to advertise with tantalizing figures, in vulnerable positions, displaying their genitalia, engaged in sexual activities, coyly looking through the computer screen, animated as seemingly aware of being look at in nude repose but without the ability to affect their circumstances. ¬†Sometimes the website will provide a warning that the content is not suitable for minors, other times it will not — and even the warnings seem pointless and perfunctory given the images already on display.

Even though a picture may say a thousand words, it is also common that these graphic images are accompanied by graphic text in an attempt to draw the consumer deeper into the site. ¬†Take, for example, the entry page (after the warning that does not require age verification) for SlutToons.com…

Here we see a collage, images positioning women as the objects of pleasure. ¬†Overlaid is text describing the content the consumer can expect to find if he goes deeper into the actual site, which requires payment for full access. ¬†Like the man who stands outside the strip club, calling out to passer-bys the features of the “products” on display within, these introductory pages offer men the prospect of hentai girls with “virgin” or “horny pussies” in need of their attention. ¬†At times, the language is highly charged with derogatory and sexist ideology, such as calling women “bitches” and “whores”, labeling two women engaged in a lesbian scene as “dirty” or “naughty”, and indicating in some way that the women deserved the abuse, such as “Awful hentai monster fucks slut”. ¬†Even the name of the site primes the consumer on what to expect, such as Hentai Pimp, Hentai Hussies, Hentai Humpers, Titanme, Cartoon Pimp and Bondanime.

Ever since stumbling upon hentai in the early 00s, in doing research on slash and yaoi, I have come across numerous titles that, while they feature different narratives, characters and styles, they have all invariably held with the pornographic themes of objectification and domination, even in cases when it is a woman instigating the sexual encounter. ¬†The common theme is inequality in power, where one individual is coerced, sometimes violently, to the sexual whims of another, and is then depicted as enjoying this subjugation. ¬†While there are instances more in line with what feminists would label as erotica — depicting a more equal display and acceptance of pleasurable sex — my perusal of free sites tend to find more of the pornographic than erotic persuasion. ¬†Even series that feature erotica, such as Femme Kabuki¬†and Wingding Orgy, will also more commonly feature instances of pornography.

Point for point, hentai appears to be merely an animated form of pornography.  However, hentai differs from live action pornography in an important way: no real women were physically involved and harmed.  Some would argue that this makes hentai a safer alternative to live action pornography.  However, the very fact that hentai girls are cartoons could increase any negative effects that come from consuming it.  There are three main areas of concern.

The hentai girl is not a representation of an actual woman — there is no physical woman with a lifetime of identity, agency and choices that has led to the appearance in the narrative. ¬†Without any ability to claim agency, all potential control over her representation is in the hands of the creator. ¬†As ink-and-paint or pixels, these representations are malleable, able to be shaped into any position that serves the whim of the creator. ¬†This “vulnerability” means her body can be horribly disfigured, with breasts larger than anything physically possible, and she can be subjected to activities impossible in live action depictions, such as the spectacle of tentacle rape and some forms of bestiality, bondage and other fetishes. ¬†“She” can have no say over any of this, as “she” is not a flesh-and-blood woman the creator or consumer need to identify or empathize with. ¬†“She” is a lifeless doll, with no legal rights, no voice, and no choice but to be the way she is animated. ¬†And this relationship between creator, consumer and hentai girl could give men the wrong idea about how to react to any and all women: without proper experiences and information countering such representations, men could be desensitized into seeing all women as these dolls.

The nature of hentai allows for the blurring of lines between consumer and creator, even more so than just having the ability to post content online. ¬†If a consumer of live action pornography had a favorite porn star and wanted to make porn for his own pleasure starring this woman, he would likely be unsuccessful in soliciting this woman to come to his house and star in his string budget, amateur film. ¬†However, a hentai girl would be available for such a personalized role, given the man’s artistic ability or ability to use computer technologies to manipulate images. ¬†As a form of doujinshi, or fan fiction or fan art, fans around the world have taken their favorite¬†characters, from both hentai and non-hentai texts, and put them into situations of their own choosing. ¬†In fact, it is quite common to see non-hentai girls being forced into hentai roles, especially those women who are superheroes or action stars in their original context. ¬†Perhaps such subjugation is to alleviate the male’s anxiety of being overpowered by these strong women. ¬†Like Jessica Rabbit, the action heroines of Sailor Moon are quite frequently turned into porn stars.

And then there is the common portrayal of hentai girls employing the common convention from anime and manga: the young, thin, yet sexually advanced adolescent, or younger appearing.  This hentai, known as lolicon, features images that border on being child pornography, although producers argue that no child actor served as the model for these images.  In much of anime and manga, it is the convention for women to be depicted with large eyes and thin limbs, which provides them with a youthful appearance regardless of the actual age of the character, and sometimes in contradiction with other physical attributes, such as post size.  According to Japanese culture expert Brad Glosserman, this depiction aligns with the Japanese idea of the ideal woman.  However, a large number of the popular female characters in anime and manga that the fans depict are teenagers, such as the action heroines from Sailor Moon.  While official producers of hentai may not be creating lolicon, those images treat such young figures the same way as older figures.  Big eyes in hentai signal innocence, virginal, and those can be big subtexual draws.

Some may argue that hentai should not be considered the same as live action pornography because of the¬†exaggerations¬†possible due to it being animated; thus, it cannot be seen as anything but humorous, a playful stress release, and not a threat the same what they live action, which uses real women, can be. ¬†Others still may argue that hentai is just the ultimate expression for the creator’s and consumers’ fantasies due to the malleability of the text. ¬†However, the same has been said about live action pornography, and how the fantasy elements of such works relate to the consumers’ acceptance of certain attitudes towards women. ¬†Fantasies not tempered by reality can take a strong hold on the viewer, and can be unleashed to horrible results.

Also, not all of hentai is of the extreme exaggeration found in some subgenres like tentacle rape. ¬†A large portion of hentai is depictions of real world events, such as bukkake in a train or school classroom, aligning them with similar scenes of orgies in live action pornography. ¬†If these images are not challenged by other information about the reality of sexual relationships, especially heterosexual ones, then the viewer may perceive these images to be the norm, regardless if it’s in a cartoon or not. ¬†As post-modernist Jean Baudrillard would argue, the very fact that the women are simulacra — hyperrealized and idealized versions of something that does not and cannot exist in¬†physical¬†reality — may make the consumer perceive them as more real than real. ¬†The malleability of the hentai may make this depiction worse if the consumer becomes the creator. ¬†Creating doujinshi hentai that imitates and thus reinscribes the same ideologies of official hentai can reinforce this perception of male dominance and female subservience. ¬†The reality of the hentai girls being unreal can create a vicious cycle that only strengthens the negative portrayal.

Part 3, in which I argue for the need to take hentai seriously, can be found here.

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