Friday, March 31, 2006

Is She or Isn't She?


Is Major Motoko Kusanagi a progressive female protagonist or a femme fatale designed for male titillation?

There are three Majors: one in the manga, one in the two movies, and one in an anime series. Each are separate of each other. I'm focusing on, for the purpose of this blog entry, the Major Kusanagi of the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Along Complex (along with the second season GitS: SAC 2nd Gig.) Warning: I'll be discussing some details of a few episodes, so some spoilers are ahead.

When I initially began watching this show, I was pretty damn excited. The Major is a kick ass character: she's smart, strong, leads a group of men and is vocal against sexism. She never needs to be saved, in fact she's the one usually "saving the day." I've never seen her fawn over, or kiss a man--in fact the most pseudo-romantic scenes that have been portrayed with her have involved women. (It's generally accepted that she's bi.)

But then there's the matter of her clothing: thigh high boots, a pink leotard that cuts up above the hips and dips deeply into her cleavage. Her breasts, are they C or D? I'm not sure, but you can't help but notice them. In general her body is perfect. A drawn fashion model.

However, it's more complicated than that. Her body is completely prosthetic. If we are to take the episode 11 "The Grass Labyrinth -- AFFECTION" as her origin, we know that when she was young she was in a plane accident and the only way that she would live is if she underwent cyberization. This makes her whole body "fake." What does gender mean when you don't have a body? There are references to her gender through out the series. An important one was when Batou asked the Major why she chose a female body over a male body--a question she doesn't necessarily answer. Instead she mind-hacked him into punching himself in the face. What I can gather from this is that the Major is expressing that she doesn't need a pumped-up male body, that her own "female model" is just fine, and that the topic really isn't up for discussion. It's obvious that the Major takes pride in her body; it's the ultimate weapon that provides her income, it allows her to be mobile, and it lets her experience the five senses. Does she dress the way she does as a way to promote that her body because she takes great pride in it? Does she dress that way in order to feel feminine because her body is made out of machinery?

These were questions that I could ponder over without ever questioning that to me, the Major was a feminist hero. Yet, when I watched 2nd gig last Saturday, episode 17 "Mother and Child -- RED DATA," I became unsettled. Could I really claim her as my hero? Was she only created for the sake of fan service?

The premise of this episode is that the Major comes across a teenage boy while digging up information on a suspect. She then takes the boy under her wing because he's in trouble with the yakuza. This includes her renting out a hotel room for night. In this scene we watch the Major walk around topless with a red towel hanging around her neck. This shows no nipple but plenty of side-boob. She talks to the boy in this manner, and gets in bed with him like this.

We've seen the Major is various states of undress before but I always chalked it up to a) her loving her body or b) her not feeling as though she's really naked because her body is artificial. The images from this scene, and her teasing answer of "Do you want to find out?" to the boy's question of whether or not cyberized bodies could have sex made everything seem a bit much. The mocking answer to the boy fit in with her character, but all the boob shots seemed to be completely gratuitous.

I've decided for myself that the character of the Major suffers from being written by too many male writers that want to please their predominantly male audience. (Look, Kusanagi kicks ass, just look at how she handles those guns, and she's really hot too!) I think in regards to the Major, we can have interesting discussions on gender and artificial bodies and the concept of nakedness, but we become limited with the proliferation of fan service--which focuses only on one kind of expression that exists to serve male heterosexuality.

It's good that it's not easy to discuss the character of the Major. It means that she's a complicated character, and that some time and energy has gone into writing her. I'm just disappointed that she's being used to promote the mainstream ideal of what feminity is. I know I wouldn't be typing this up if she was a male character (the issue of fan service wouldn't be happening)--but if she was a male character, I know I wouldn't be interested. I want to claim the Major as a representation of a progressive female protagonist, but do the sexualized representations of her negate the positive aspects of her character?

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm also a fan of the Stand Alone Complex Kusanagi, but the show seems almost schizophrenic at times. Like the writers intend her to be a perfect samurai hardass, but the animators intend her to be a sex doll with a submachinegun.

Another thing I'd like to point out is that we see very little skin besides Kusanagi's in SAC (I know we get "naked" cyborgs in the movies). What does this mean, exactly? Kusanagi is invariably the least dressed at any social occasion. Section 9 has soulless purely robotic operators who have the form of young girls, but I can't remember the show ever oogling them the way it does Big K. They are just objects that take orders from the team. Given Shirow's enthusiasm for the female form, this strikes me as a deliberate choice.

100LittleDolls said...

Thanks for your comment, you make some really good points. Women are largely absent from SAC (except in there are part of the plot for an episode) and they are always more clothed than the Major.

Well, at least now we have the Prime Minister--I'm really anxious to see how she develops.

Also, I was talking to a friend about all of this and he was thinking that the maybe some of the thought process behind the presentation of women in the series is that even though the society that is being portrayed is extremely technologically advanced, there hasn't been much advancement in regards to gender equality, and the creative minds behind it want to demonstrate that.

Marionette said...

which focuses only on one kind of expression that exists to serve male heterosexuality

I wouldn't say that was 100% accurate, espicially since she is portrayed as bi.

Ragnell said...

Mari -- You seriously think they were thinking of lesbians when they decided that?

Nope, that's for the standard male fantasy of a threesome with two women, fed by the fact that this character does like both genders.

100LittleDolls said...

Yeah, I agree with Ragnell. (On the flip side, it's like how yoai is written for a female heterosexual audience.)

Also, we never really see Motoko checking out other women...or other women checking her out, but we get plenty of instances where we see men lusting after her.

This also makes me think--do queer women value the same sexy attributes as straight men? In my own personal experience, the two don't match up.

Anonymous said...

In the first season, however, she does have her "friends," Like the nurse that informs her of a possible black market organ sale. She says something to Motoko along the lines of, "why dont you come over anymore?" But of course the "friend" is in a nurse's outfit, a popular male (&female?) sexual fantasy.

Marionette said...

No, I don't think for one second they considered lesbians a significant target group.

Doesn't mean we don't get to enjoy the benefit, though.

Adalisa said...

(I came here through "When Fangirls attack")
I haven't been moved to check SAC, but if it is based on the original manga, then Kusanagi is actually a lesbian. There's a shot of her having an orgy with other three female cyborgs in one of the issues of the original miniseries, that I think was censored for the american release.
Of course, that was added just for the male audience. Shirow tends to do that a lot (More now than then, if I'm not mistaken)

ARMed_Pirate said...

I think it's worth noting that fan service _does_ occur with male characters, though almost exclusively in anime, manga, and the like. I'm talking primarily about bishounen (feel free to correct my spelling).

Almost every female friend I have who swooned over animated characters, swooned over Sephiroth (Final Fantasy VII) or his earlier equivalents. Sesshomeru (Inu Yasha) seems to be the current favorite. For some reason the cold personality also seems to be a big draw.

To be fair, I should note that this swooning was mostly done during high school by girls of high school age. But if I'm not mistaken, the guys who get the most kick out of the hyper-sexualized female form are high school guys as well.

There is obviously a notable difference here. Rather than being hyper-sexualized, service for female fans seems to take an extremely androgynous slant: long hair, small shoulders, round face with pointed chin (not blocky), sometimes even large thighs (or thigh-enhancing clothing), but no breasts. Even Kakashi (another current favorite, from Naruto, though not a bishounen per se) has a figure that could belong to a tall woman.

But these body types do seem to be repeated to cater to a certain large and sexually/romantically interested fan base. If that's not fan service with male characters, I'm not sure I understand the term.

(On a side note, hyper-sexualized male characters _do_ exist in anime, and are quite common, but they almost always seem to serve comedic roles rather than sexual.)

100LittleDolls said...

Hey adalisa--Ahh, the infamous orgy scene. And if that isn't enough, Shirow felt compelled to write in his notes that scene was depicting her side business (the wikipidia entry on Motoko goes into extensive detail about this.) But in the manga, we see that she actually has a boyfriend .

armed_pirate: Yes, you're right. And this is an interesting phenomenon that I think is currently taking Japanese culture by storm. I saw an athropologist give a lecture on my campus who is going to publish a book on how women's tastes in beautiful men is becoming a huge driving force in the fashion industry for men. Still, I think male characters are allowed to have a larger variety of body types in anime than female characters.

Adalisa said...

Hi again...
I didn't know about the boyfriend because I stopped buying the manga around issue... I think it was four or five. A couple after the orgy. Does the boyfriend appears in GitS I or II?
Personally, I don't like Shirow's strong women since they all seem a bit of the same... the only one I can think that's different from the 'hard militar' type is Seska from Orion... but then again, I'm not a big fan of Shirow's scripts so I might be wrong here.

100LittleDolls said...

Hi Adalisa, no boyfriend as of yet in Stand Alone Complex, and it's been awhile since I saw the first movie (I don't remember if there was one) and no boyfriend in the second movie.

I do agree with you on Shirow's women being the same. I think that's why I like the anime series so much, I feel the writers worked on developing her.

Brinstar said...

Whew. I thought your post was going end badly, because I, too love the Major as a character.

Madeline Ashby said...

It's so good to find someone else who is thinking about this! I'm actually at work on a paper about this very subject at the moment. I hope you don't mind if I add you to my links list at Fandrogyny.

Anonymous said...

C'mon folks, Motoko became a cyborg in really early years, so she has NEVER EXPIRIENCED ANY PUBERTY when soul and body change dramatically. Her sexuality is infantile.
In order to hide this immature part of her personality she grabs the fashion, Motoko's slutty outfits - a try to show the self-confident woman of herself.

Because she exprienced "much solitude" (Kuze, Episode 26), has never had any real friends or relationships her emotional side is wasted as well...
Compensating that, she ALWAYS, REALLY ALWAYS rely on dry logic and analytics. Even in most sentimental and romantic moments she behaves in most stupid manner. I don't want to count these moments, you sure know what I'm talking about.

Regarding the facts she has nothing but a shizoid personality disorder.

100LittleDolls said...

Well you make an interesting point about sexuality and having a fake body, I don't necessarily agree that her sexuality is infantile. For one, in the society that GitS presents, it's not so out of the ordinary to be a cyborg or have cyborg parts. Also, I think her puberty could have been when she lost her biological body and switched over to the cyborg one: she went through huge changes and I'm sure her mind and soul underwent a lot of change. It would be different in the case of character who's body never ages. That said, even though it's obvious she is capable of experiencing many different sensations, there does seem to be a mind/body disconnect. I don't think of that as being mature or immature, but rather as human. Also, while her personality is that of being reserved, cold and calculating, it seemed obvious to me that she has a sensitive side and was able to form some good friendships, whether it be through Section 9 or her lady friends outside of it. I think one of the reasons why she's presented as always just being logical and such is a way to compensate for being a woman in a leadership position in an occupation that is heavily male.

Anonymous said...

"I think her puberty could have been when she lost her biological body"
Regard her first body and agree it isn't a body of a teenager.

"I think one of the reasons why she's presented as always just being logical and such is a way to compensate for being a woman in a
leadership position in an occupation that is heavily male."

Weak argument. She is cold and logical everywhere, not only in some leading position. It's naive to think women can't be rational.

"I don't think of that as being mature or immature, but rather as human."
Human is a very unclear pallet of traits, being too euphemistic. I think you're talking about humans without any mental disorders, for in psychology what's normal and what's not is clearly defined.

100LittleDolls said...

She was around ten years old in her first body, right? It's been awhile since I watched GitS, so I could be wrong. But for girls, they commonly start puberty as young as the fourth grade.

Well, I think essentially what's going on here, the reason why she may seem to come off as being schizophrenic, is because of the intent of the creators. They wanted to create a kick-ass woman character that was also extremely sexy in order to cater to the male gaze.

I also never insuated that women can't be rational. Rather, what I mean is that the writers overcompensated her "hardness." So what we have here is a character that is exhibiting what is commonly thought as male characteristics in a sexed-up, womanly body.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstood me. I mentioned "schizoid" and not "schizophrenic". There's a huge difference between both terms.

Look here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizoid_personality_disorder

100LittleDolls said...

Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Either way, I'm not too interested in diagnosing a mental illness in Kusanagi because I see the issues surrounding her characterization as consequences of patriarchal society.

Dosflo said...

Hi! I am another fan of Ghost in the Shell. It had always stroked to me the provocative scenes of the anime series (not the film), very contradictory with the apparently cold personality of Kusanagi. I had always thought:

- Nah! It is my imagination. Sure there is some explanation for Kusanagi going around almost in bikini. Perhaps, because she is a cyborg, she doesn't mind it. Or it is an effective weapon to manipulate men in her missions...

That was my thought until the episode "Mother and child", after which scene with the child in the bed I said to myself: (:o) That can´t be happening!

My only possible conclusion now, perhaps as a bit of scientist, is that those scenes are intended plainly to attract male public. And that's a pity, because, apart from making a bit difficult for a man to concentrate in the plot, it makes the series a bit unreal.

It seems to me not very good for the mental health this fashion of including sexual attractors in ALL kind of staff (anime, manga, films, series, advertisements, video games...) only to gather more consumers. With time this will make of the woman's image nothing more than a sexual object. It is a pity that in the end one of my favorites series were participating in this too.

Anonymous said...

Are we examining the character or the author?

If the character is being portrayed in a beleivable and reasonably consistent manner, then whether the author is motivated by providing fan service (as Shirow has admitted to some extent) is irrelevant. The fan sevice aspects aren't 'tacked on', they are part of what makes the character interesting.

In the Major's case, I always felt that she was experienceing a disconnect from her own body; to her it is a tool and a plaything, So she is unafraid of lust being directed toward it. However, she is fiercely protective of her soul, so she fears situations that threaten it, like deep friendships or falling in love.

In any case, even among cyborgs, police and hackers galore, she is obviously exceptionally competent, strong willed, and tough.

The point is, she can be an exemplar of a strong, independent female character AND an object of lust.

Raven said...

I think people tend to overanalyze this. We know who she is. She is really a person out to do her job. Even despite her occasional dilemmas she doesn't tend to focus too much on it. She's a very well-rounded person and a very real woman. A human is a multifaceted creature and to generalize her is not a good idea. So she dresses provacatively. Regardless of the writer's intentions this should not be seen so harshly. Motoko as a character tends to be a blend of gruff and refined. So her tastes in clothing tend to go along with it. Sometimes she dresses provacatively (as normal women sometimes do) and other times she tones it down with a pair of pants. Honestly, aside from her leotard outfit she keeps her dresscode pretty androgynous. In fact she and I share a very similar way of dressing. As far as the teenage boy thing I find that a very unorthodox way to deal with teenager. Typically when a teenager comes onto me I tend to laugh and say "kiddo, you're best keeping with your own age range" but perhaps her way was to tease him alittle. Motoko can be a tease afterall. Not in the femme fatale fashion ofcourse but for example when she deals with Batou's attraction she teases him a little about it. I highly doubt she was serious about it. And regardless of whether these things are gratuitous I tend to ignore it and focus on the big picture which is neither "girl power" or "hot chick". She's an operative 2nd in command of a team. She does her job more than well. The plot and cases they work on are interesting. But if you absolutely must analyze her as a woman I would say she is very much a progressive female protagonist. She's broken through alot of barriers when it comes to the portrayal of female fighters. She takes her fair share of punches. She doesn't always look "cute" doing it. She has very cutthroat tendencies (let's face it, hollywood tends to keep their women sensitive) and she's focused on the job. When she is asked about her gender and why she has a job that is typically "male" she responds with a (albeit self) punch to the face (funny scene) and they call it even and leave the issue be. If any female protagonist could come close to the realness and down-to-earth nature it would have to be Demi Moore's character Jordan O'Neal in G.I. Jane. Typical female heroines are really nothing more than feisty, sex-kitten, tomboys. While Motoko is a very beautiful woman and has a perfect body that is mostly to do with the prosthetics, (How many people would choose small boobs, hairy legs and oily skin? Or small male members for that matter? the question can be asked of both genders) she is hardly feisty and her demeanor is usually very professional. I hate how women are encouraged to be feisty. I find that to be so ridiculous. Really, just because you're feisty you prove to men that you're just as capable? Not to say I feel women should be the complete opposite but looking from a perspective unclouded by sexism or oppressive gender values (namely, men) you would think an honorable PERSON is someone who is calm and focused and not bouncing around and acting like they're in a testosterone craze. That's just ridiculous. Feisty women tend to be seen as "cute" and never taken seriously. And I find feisty people in general to be foolish. Don't confuse feisty with assertive. They're completely different. As a woman who has tried to find a good female rolemodel (and believe me, I've been through plenty) the only significant one I've found is Motoko. Lara Croft comes close if they would develop her personality (and not turn her into an abused girlfriend like in the movie sequel. Pathetic! Why would she put up with his bull?). G.I. Jane is ofcourse high up on the list (she has brains, knows how to use them and she can throw hard punches). But aside from that I've found none. Motoko is a well-rounded person who has a firm grasp of her goals in life. She has her weaknesses and is no Wonder Woman. She's human. She is commanding and rational. Her character flies far from the stereotypes of women in leadership: bitches in power(man-hating) or sobbing messes(overly emotional). My personal favorite scene (and I'm sure I'm not alone) is towards the end of SAC after Togusa gets shot and the Narc who shot him nearly kills Motoko. Man, any feeling of watching anime disappears and you feel the raw, brutal anger of a commander who nearly lost her soldier. I mean, the scene is just heavy with anger and unbridled fury. It's in that scene that any belief that she is just some "badass, kickass chick" should fly out the window. No, no, no. She is the "Major". That's all. Not chick, not girl, not even woman. Just the Major. And that is exactly what every commander should be seen as by their subordinates. Seen without gender but with a pure sense of what that person is there to do. And she showed that Narc exactly what that was. To not only supervise and manage her subordinates but PROTECT them. So, sex doll? If all you look at is fanart and the PR shots, sure. But as a person? She's a legend. Going farther than any female protagonist before her. She puts her life on the line for her crew. They do the same for eachother. There is no feisty "cute" girl. There is no Charlie's Angels "look! we're hott and know kung-fu". I think women would find life alot easier if they adopted a little question into their lives: what would the major do? WWMD. Yep.

That said, I could care less about the female protagonist and "how kickass she is versus how exploited her body is". I personally care more about the plot and cases they take on then how kick ass the Major is. She exudes combat experience and commander status. There's no need to analyze her actions or her portrayal. She is who she is. She's not a La Femme Nikita and she is certainly not Charlie's Angel or Girl Next Door. She's an agent in an elite anti-military cyborg unit and her job is to command them in the field and make sure they get home alive. There you go.

None of this is meant to offend. If it has I apologize and in any event it was probably a misunderstanding.