Cartoon Rape Is Still Rape: Thoughts on Hentai

I published on here a paper I wrote for a Women’s Studies class while in graduate school. This paper looked at hentai and made an argument for the necessity of studying it from a feminist perspective.

Well, I just found the papers I wrote to lead up to that idea, and it shows my working through it, step by step, during that class. Perhaps sharing them here will help others by showing this work-in-progress process.

This is the first paper (1/19/06):

My topic deals fundamentally with the representation of women’s sexuality, albeit in animated form, and what it signifies about the relationship between men and women.  Hentai is the American term for Japanese animated depictions of sex, which have both the range of live-action pornography and the capacity to go beyond the physical limitations of such texts.  No matter the exaggerations capable due to the medium, hentai texts often resemble live-action porn in its treatment of women’s sexuality.  A number of our readings have already dealt with sexuality and serve to provide an initial means of understanding how to read these texts as well as understand their relationships with the creators and consumers of hentai and society at large.

For purposes of this brief paper, I am collapsing the Berger (1972) and Rose (1982) readings due to their common discussion of the creation of women’s sexuality within the domain of man’s control.  Berger, in analyzing the positions women were painted in by men painters to be seen by men viewers, utilizes aspects of the theories of Lacan for analysis in her work.  The use of Lacan’s theories to read the text of nude paintings allowed Berger to understand and explain how these paintings are examples of the power dynamics in the relationship between men and women, and they provide an example of how to study hentai women and their relationship to men.  According to Berger, women exist only to appear, to be the surveyed and surveyor only of themselves, whereas men exist to act and survey women.  Lacan goes further, stating women do not exist in our symbolic language because they represent the absence of the phallus; they are the absence against which man, the owner of the phallus, is constructed.  Thus, women exist only in their relationship to men, and yet they do not exist because they do not contain the ability to act.

Hentai women are perfect exemplars of this theorized nature of women.  Typically there is no “flesh and blood” woman in reality that serves as the model for these animated and drawn figures.  They exist only on paper or on the screen, usually created by a man for man’s pleasure, and thus they have no existence outside the domain of man.  Her existence signifies the desires of her creator; by not having a “blood” model to signify, she would be pure absence (as in nothingness and void) were it not for the artistic abilities of her creator.  She is Galatea to Pygmalion, only never given any sign of what we deem as life.  She has no agency of her own, and thus she has absolutely no ability to survey anything but herself as she engages in sexual acts, and even this surveying is at the behest of a man.  She can definitely not survey others, and is only to be surveyed by others.  Man positions her the way he desires, the way he believes other men will desire, and thus she is a true sign of submission.

The combined reading Berger makes of the paintings thus uses Lacan’s theory on the nature of women’s presence, and he adds in a discussion of castration anxiety to explore what these texts say about the relationship between man and woman.  According to Lacan, men have a fear of losing the phallus, of being castrated so as to have the absence embodied by women.  They also fear a woman realizing and relishing her own sexuality as it may be a challenge to the phallus and thus the domain of man.  There is the realization, if only unconsciously, that the phallus is only a symbol for a non-existent and unobtainable object of desire, and can thus be lost, returned to the ether that it signifies.  Woman, already lacking the phallus, represent this state of loss and is thus a source of consternation for man.  He must constantly reassure himself that he is not woman.  By controlling the depictions of women in paintings, such that women are objects to be surveyed by men and simultaneously aware of this surveying (i.e., this power) men are wielding over them, man as creator and man as viewer is able to both assert and be reassured that he has the phallus.  Woman is relegated to the status of being man’s fantasy, and as such cannot be real, cannot have agency and cannot be a threat to his domain.  The phallus remains firmly in the man’s control with such reassurances.

And hentai texts serve as ways to reaffirm this dominion of man.  Hentai women are created for the sole purpose of male survey.  They are true fantasy, existing nowhere but in the imagination of man and his subsequent depictions of his imagination – she is simulacrum.  Being man’s creations, they are to serve man’s desires, including the desire to be reassured that man remains in control and that woman prefers this power dynamic.  The rape myth, a common hentai and real-life porn text, straightforwardly portrays this anxiety.  Women are forced to have sex by a man (or numerous men), and although she initially indicates her intense displeasure with this relationship, at the end she is thoroughly enjoying the forced sex and, by extension, the dominion man has over her.  Man as creator/reader is reassured that women prefer to lack the phallus, and that they desire a lot of it (in penis form) from man.  Woman’s pleasure comes from man for man, and by being drawn creations, of man.

The position of hentai women as a creation is paramount in understanding the relationship between the texts and their audience, linking another discussion and analysis to this topic.  Briefly, Tetzlaff’s (1993) analysis of Madonna as a commodity fetishizing the desire for power demonstrates how a “blood” woman can be consumed as a product, where self-actualization is the end product sold to the audience and is not discussed as the process for achieving power.  Additionally, he indicated how men can read Madonna’s linking her sexuality with her power as a threat to their own dominion; powerful women who assert control over their jouissance threaten to take the phallus from the hand of man and possibly retain it by force.  She has embraced being the whore without being trapped by man’s control of sexuality.  She has what man has had – the best of both worlds.

Hentai exists in two forms.  The first form is as a media text produced by some animation studio or book publisher, created for mass distribution and capitalist profit.  Hence hentai women are commodities, created in order to earn money by those who purchase them.  They are whores without control over their earnings.  Like whores, they are pimped out to the consumer for the consumer’s desires.  The producer sells a product, but cannot dictate the use of the product to the consumer; the producer can only offer suggestions, such as positioning the woman in certain ways to elicit readings from men that harkens back to the simultaneity of sexual desire and castration anxiety, the dual fetishes she was created to embody.  This double (not necessarily opposing) reaction is an undercurrent to the signs written into the depictions of the hentai women.  They may be whores, at the mercy of their master’s whims, but every master has a similar instruction booklet in their mind.

Not only are hentai produced by production houses, but fans of animation (from any country) and hentai itself will produce their own hentai women.  In fact, a common form of fan hentai will be the depiction of non-hentai women, who are oftentimes strong heroines in their original media texts, as submissive and dominated hentai women.  Such a product would be akin to taking Madonna’s images, creating a computer model, and then subjecting her to gang rape.  This is part of the inability of the producer to dictate the “proper” use of his media text, and it is an example of the potential strength of hentai in relationship to live-action pornography.  Animated women are non-entities with no “blood” model, and their essence is easier for man to capture and recreate for his own personal use.  Women who in their original text are in control of their own stories are reshaped to be at the mercy of their new master.  Man’s fear of a powerful woman in control of her jouissance is alleviated as the double threat is subjected to the same treatment, bringing them to the level of the surveyed without agency, turning hero to whore.

This is the second paper (1/31/06):

Kaplan writes, “Mulvey was aware of the way feminist films as counter-cinema would deny pleasure, but she argued that this denial was a necessary prerequisite for freedom, and did not go into the problems involved” (124). Are our only film options as critical feminists mainstream Hollywood films, saturated with images of the male gaze, or feminist films that we don’t enjoy?  How can we incorporate queer theory to assuage this dilemma?

What about media texts like Brokeback Mountain, The Full Monty, Breakfast on Pluto, and Velvet Goldmine?  How do we understand/analyze these representations of homosexual males not meant to be gay porn with the concept of the male gaze?  Or the queer gaze?  Or the phenomenon of slash, where women take straight men from media texts and create texts where they are homosexual.  Are these examples of a fabled female gaze?

Taking the Foucault conception of the power dynamics in the gaze, and if in psychoanalytic terms the gaze is meant to “other” and objectify the “gazee”, are there other types of gazes, such as the “het gaze,” “white gaze” (as colonization gaze from Firstenberg), “young gaze”, etc.?  As Evans and Gamman said in their discussion of colonialization, we know others not as they are but as we see them.

In June L. Reich’s description of “genderfuck” she writes, “We are defined not by who we are but by what we do” and calls for the end of identity politics (41). However, she makes no mention of race or other categories of difference outside of sex, gender, and sexual practice.  How could genderfucking acknowledge and include other categories such as race, ability etc., or is this not a possibility?

Are we all caught in Madison Avenue’s panopticon?  Are men nowadays, with such labels as metrosexual and ubersexual, being commodified as potential buying group so that they are made to scrutinize themselves in the way women have, per Berger’s argument?  Is it so much a gendered gaze as it is a consumer or capitalist gaze?  Could that explain the rise in male eating disorders, similar to the problems discussed by Bordo?

In their discussion of Foucault’s panopticon, Evans and Gamman write, “In particular the processes that inform the subjectivity of women who experience themselves as more visible…and learn to appraise themselves through male eyes, seems comparable to us. This is because women in Western culture continue to experience more social “surveillance” and objectification than men” (20). Also, Kaplan mentions that Kristeva has found desire to function much differently in China (135). Is the male gaze unique to Western culture? If so, what are some possible reasons for this?  Doesn’t this claim disrupt Freudian and Lacanian theory that feeds into gaze theory?

Does the gaze theory hold up against the scrutiny of post-modernism?  Can objectification through gaze be possible if identities, and thus potential identifications, are fluid and multiple?

June L. Reich writes “This process is the destabilisation of gender as an analytical category, though it is not, necessarily, the signal of the end of gender…” (41) Is it simply the end of identifying with a certain gender? Does this allow for creation of more genders or can we only be fluid between two genders?

Evans and Gamman write, “However, it is only psychoanalysis that provides a model to formulate questions about agency and desire at all” (20). (Unlike Foucault’s model…)  Can we really control our desires?  How does psychoanalysis provide us with agency when theorizing the male gaze?

If the female gaze fetishizes men, objectifying them for their body parts, is that any better?  Can there be a happy medium in how we present the human body, or will there always be a connotation of sex and power dimensions?

SailorMoon (shojo anime)
FLCL (Shounen anime)

This is the third paper (2/1/06):

I continue down the path of Freud and Lacan in applying our readings to my intended project on hentai and the male creator/consumer.  This time around the thoughts of Bordo and the theory of the male gaze provide both insights and guidelines for conducting my own research.  Where I am right now on my thinking through the project, the readings have thus far provided a means of understanding how to read the texts, from both the creator and consumer perspectives.  This is largely due to our discussions of psychoanalysis and what it says about how women are represented in the media, especially media intended for a mostly male audience.  The readings I have selected to briefly discuss herewith add to this understanding, and begin to assist my drive to understanding what is a feminist methodology and how do I use one to explain the possible impact of the texts on the male audience.

One of Bordo’s main arguments, woven through both of the readings, is that images are never just harmless images.  Images, particularly of women in her studies, are constructed with specific meaning(s) due to the historical moment of their creation.  These meanings are then interpreted by the viewer who associates the perceived meaning with her own life.  Images of beautiful, thin women tell real women how they are supposed to be viewing themselves in comparison to what is desirable in society.  By being created, as we perceive, by society, the images tell us what society values, and thus what we are to internalize and value as well.  In fact, Bordo’s argument is similar to a theory in mass communication called cultivation, whereby a consistent, constant and unchallenged portrayal can produce in the heavy viewer a conception of the world that more closely resembles that of the fictitious portrayal and not reality as it is.  Seeing, in this case, is believing the wrong thing, or the thing the producers want you to see.

Bordo’s work has investigated the representation of the “thin ideal” as glamorous and normalized and has the attempted, through psychoanalytical methods, to link these portrayals with the rise of eating disorders in America.  Accommodating her main argument about the normalizing impact of images, her methodology can be applied to the relationship between hentai and the male audience.  It was interesting how in one piece Bordo discusses the “sexifying” of young girls and how this may influence how men see these “nymphets prancing before their eyes, exuding a sexual knowledge and experience that preteens don’t really have.” (p. 147, “The Empire of Images…”).  In this instance, Bordo argues men may be more likely to act sexually, even rape, these young girls, who themselves are acting out in a way being normalized by the images they see in the media (a la Britney Spears). 

One interesting aspect in hentai, often remarked by consumers and critics, is the childish appearance of the women being subjugated; were these live action depictions, many hentai would be classified as child pornography.  Using Bordo’s argument, it seems possible that consumption of this representation may impact men in a way similar to seeing preteens prance around in high heels and make-up.  What the men are seeing in hentai is not realistic, and is usually exaggerated beyond being realistic; however, if they do not have a counter-argument to dilute this portrayal, they may come to accept it as the norm and thus act on only this information if ever in a situation of interaction with a woman, even if it’s not a sexual situation.  Various psychological studies have shown this relationship between exposure to pornography and the impact on a man’s attitudes and behaviors towards women, both sexual and non-sexual. 

What could exacerbate this problematic link between seeing hentai women and reacting to real women, touched upon by Bordo and elaborated with the gaze theory, is the extent to which these depictions reduce women to their body parts, objectifying them instead of portraying them as “real people”.  The gaze theory, originally conceived around the concept of the male gaze, reaffirms the notion that images are created deliberately.  In particular, motion pictures are manipulations of reality because only certain things can be shown at any given time; the focus of the camera has to be pointed somewhere to capture an object or a motion just as my eyes have to be on the computer screen to follow my typing, to the exclusion of the room around me.  The gaze of the camera is dictated by a person, and this person, either consciously or subconsciously, makes decisions on how to frame the object of its gaze.  What gaze theory contends is that the gaze of the camera on women is oftentimes employed to objectify them, to construct them as fetishes for the enjoyment of the male consumer, who’s gaze at the screen is transformed into the camera’s gaze on the women.  Additionally, if there is a man in the frame gazing at the women, the male consumer can also identify with the man, with the potential for having two simultaneous gazes on a woman who is being sexualized for his viewing pleasure. 

This triangle relationship is easily seen in the male consumption of hentai, and only requires a brief mention of that similarity here.  What is more interesting is the explanation of the pleasure wrought from the male gaze.  The psychoanalytic reasoning builds on our previous discussions of Lacan and the castration anxiety.  As Kaplan stated, the camera fetishizes women to render it phallus-like, changing it from something dangerous (denying the existence of the female genitalia, sexuality and thus possible agency) into something more reassuring to the male viewer.  The male gaze removes from the women the power of being a unified person, with her own sexual wants and desires, and transforms her into a collection of disjointed body parts that can be accommodated and used by men for their own sexual pleasures.  The pleasure from the fetishizing can then be combined with pleasures from the voyeuristic position of the male viewer and the filmed woman.  Men are given a seat of power, dominance, in their relationship with the gazed upon woman, who is forced to accept a position of submission (even without her awareness of it) and is yet typically shown as enjoying this position.

All of these concepts (castration anxiety, fetishism, voyeurism, and the dominance/ submissive positioning) are apparent in readings of hentai.  Women are typically portrayed by positioning the frame over certain body parts, or by positioning their bodies so that the “camera” (in these texts represented by the drawing angle or perspective) is focused on one part of their body to the exclusion of seeing the woman’s body as a whole.  This occurs when the woman is portrayed alone, or when she is with a sex partner (be it male or female).  The male viewer is thus able to take pleasure in viewing the woman from a distance.  Also, hentai women, while being subjugated and sometimes violently, often assume the submissive role to a dominant male (or in lesbian scenes, one woman is dominate over the other) and are displayed as enjoying this submissiveness.  The man viewing these depictions is allowed to assume both the view of the creator, who’s drawing style represents the camera’s gaze (and cannot be described as subconscious framing as drawing requires conscious decision-making), as well as identifying with a male sex partner or a female sex partner who assumes a dominant role.

By combining Bordo and gaze theory, we can understand how heavy consumption of hentai could install certain malignant attitudes and behaviors in the male viewer.  Hentai depictions of women turn them into commodities, into fetishes under the control of men, and the women are shown as enjoying this position they hold in the relationship – in fact, as drawings and thus not real, they have no choice over their enjoyment or positioning.  If men are only exposed to these depictions of women, without a strong enough counter-argument, then they may come to believe that such interactions are the proper way to behave around and to women.  Seeing becomes believing, and believing can become behaving.

This is the fourth paper (2/15/06):

The most interesting things I found in these selected readings I discuss below is not in how they add to my investigation of the representation of women in hentai by means of supplying a theory, methodology or even examples to support my work.  In fact, Snow and Frueh’s discussions of a woman’s gaze offer a counter to the male gaze analysis that is crucial to my project.  Also, Nafisi and her women appear more celebratory towards the characterization of Lolita than others who would decry such a representation as bordering on child pornography, which is a common complaint of hentai women.  How then do I incorporate these arguments into my own?  By providing the counter-arguments, embedded in hentai, which do not allow such progressive readings to easily exist.            

Snow and Frueh, by examining works of art, both modern and classical, theorize one form of resistance to the dominance of the male gaze in viewing female nudes.  Frueh’s discussion of “cunt-positive” spoke of how female artists shifted the gaze on the female nude’s body to be originating from the woman, allowing the woman the pleasure of viewing her own body and seeing it not through the lens of “self-repulsion” but “self-love.”  She argues this shift removed the female body from the sole possession of the man’s fantasies and sexuality, and could be interpreted as instating in the woman a level of “self-determination” and “self-actualization.”  By forcing unto the art viewer the woman’s subjective positioning, this “cunt-positive” positioning may also engender in the viewer a spectatorship that encourages empathy with the woman instead of arousing anxiety and sexual desires, unless it is identifying with the woman’s own sexual desires.  While Frueh also discusses modern art focusing on average women, non-glamorized for male fetishization, Snow adds to her discussion by looking at classical works, in particular those of the famed Spaniard Velazquez, in how the artist has repositioned the female nude to not be on display for men.  In fact, this positioning neglects or refuses men, as the females are depicted gazing at themselves, seemingly unaware and even defiantly indifferent to any potential spectator.  They are interested in only themselves, their pleasure coming from their bodies and not from sharing an “intimate” moment of display with a masculine spectator.

Unfortunately, this shift to a decidedly more joissance-oriented gaze is largely absent from hentai depictions.  That is not to say hentai is absent of women alone gazing at themselves or enjoying their own bodies and sexuality – quite the contrary!  In fact, there are hentai that contain compositions of only women, although typically one is in a dominant, masculine position, represented by her possession of either a strap-on dildo or an actual penis.  One would be hard pressed to apply Frueh and Snow’s readings of the women’s gaze on these depictions.  While the hentai women may be gazing at their own bodies with no one else in the frame, their body is often on display for the reader.  In a graphic novel depiction, her illustrated subjective perspective that is surrounded by inserts that feature close-ups on this part or this feature or this action being done to the body.  Even if it is two women holding each other’s gaze, some part of their body is on display.  The message: their pleasure cannot exist if the male is not pleased. 

Of course, all of this makes logical sense.  Hentai is pornography, and is intended for and consumed by a largely male audience, or a masculine spectator who has internalized the social-sexual norm of dominance/submission for sexual gratification.  To be dominant as a spectator, the other must be submissive, must yield to one’s gaze, and should not be allowed any control over their own sexuality lest that empowers them with agency and creates the possibility of becoming a creature worthy of empathy and identification – lest one desires to identify with the submissive position.  Because of hentai’s position as pornography, we would not expect to see attempts to subvert or resist the male gaze.  We would expect to see the dominance/submission dichotomy firmly entrenched in the sexual relationships depicted.  What adds to this creation of the D/S dichotomy, and adds to the criticism of hentai, is the representation of the “lolicon.”  Lolicon, short for “Lolita complex,” are hentai that feature female prepubescents in the nude and/or sexual situations, as teenage girls are often considered in Japanese culture to be the pinnacle of beauty.  This depiction, criticized as child pornography by some, can occur around original characters or characters taken out of established series, such as the shojo (girl) manga SailorMoon or The Slayers

Because of this subset of hentai did I find Nafisi’s take on Lolita most interesting.  Having never seen the movie, I had of course heard the term “Lolita” applied in pop culture to teenage girls who were more sexualized and sexually active than they should be for their age, as determined by our society’s standards.  The connotation was that these girls were asking for trouble from pedophiles by engaging in such behavior, where society places the blame for child pornography, rape and abuse on the girl and not the male perpetrator.  So I found it very interesting when Nafisi referred to Lolita as taking “every opportunity to flaunt [her] insubordination” (p. 25), reconstructing Lolita not to be an evil seductress who deserves her fate but as a girl attempting to break free from the bonds placed upon her by her mother and society at large.  Nafisi and her girls appear to engage in identification and empathy with the girl, who had her innocence raped and consumed by an older man who was ostensibly her guardian, the man who was supposed to care, provide and protect her.  They argue that Lolita is seen essentially only from Humbert’s fantasy and sex-distorted perspective, and is robbed of the ability to speak for herself.  She is constructed by Humbert’s gaze, as are all women, and thus is even easier to identify with.  Nafisi and her girls read into and past Humbert’s descriptions, seeing through the lens of their lived experiences a life like their own.

But are the Lolitas in hentai as easy to identify with?  These lolicons are likewise created by the male’s gaze, and are depicted in the same manner.  They are depicted as either in control of their sexual desire, seeking out encounters, embodying the role of the seductress in their appearance and/or behavior.  Even if they are depicted as being bashful and embarrassed (only to later fully enjoy the experience, even the violent ones), their appearance contradicts this behavior, as they are drawn wearing short skirts, tight shirts and other accoutrements that signal sexual readiness and openness.  Is it as Nafisi argued?  Are these lolicon’s flaunting their insubordination against a society with oppressive sexual norms?  Perhaps that can be argued in non-hentai anime and manga (although even then, it is more likely fan service to please the male viewer).  In hentai, any flaunting is essentially just another dance for the male spectator, unable to be an agent over her own desires; her dance is not “cunt-positive” but “penis-positive”. 

Perhaps Nabokov’s Lolita can be interpreted by female readers as a woman seeking her freedom by the only means open to her.  But lolicons are representations of nothing but the figments of another’s imagination – often a man’s imagination.  They are Humbert’s interpretations of Lolita, made even less real than that fictional character due to further exaggerations in appearance and behavior.  The lolicons are even depicted as enjoying their position, not desiring an escape or freedom from the submissive position they, arguably, put themselves into.  While it may be possible to identify with Lolita due to her desire for freedom, it would seem less likely to willingly identify with a lolicon for the same reasons.  Of course, as it is a common condition for women to dance for the male spectator, identification may be hard to escape.

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