Of Otakon and Christmas Cakes
Published: July 31, 2012
The Otaku in town for Otakon will know the scene I’m describing: Major Motoko Kusanagi crouches atop a Tokyo skyscraper in the year 2029. She’s got technology in her robotic body that allows her to spy on a meeting below. Her partner interrupts the radio chatter in her head with a mission update. When she doesn’t respond, he scolds, “What’s with all the noise in your brain today?” What’s her reply? That depends on whether you’re watching the dubbed or subtitled version of the anime movie Ghost In The Shell (1995). In the dubbed version, for English-speaking audiences, she explains the noise is from “a loose wire.” In the subtitled version, she says what’s presumably really in the Japanese dialogue: “It’s that time of the month.”
To be fair, despite the rampant sexism of Japanese culture (you know what an unmarried woman over the age of 25 is called in Japanese slang? A “Christmas cake”, because who wants it after the 25th?), I understand—and forgive—blaming Kusanagi’s mental clutter on menstruation, because in the next moment Kusanagi doffs her cloak and reveals her moon-white, nude, and startlingly female cyborg body. That line about her period isn’t a slur on her mental fitness. It underlines how, holy shit, a woman’s in charge of the mission, as she turns on her “thermoptic camouflage”—a device that turns her invisible—to mete out mayhem on her enemies. Seeing her descend over the city like a diving angel gives me a gushing nosebleed and makes me hope our blood types are compatible.
Kusanagi is omnipotent, elegant, and fearless in her invisibility, but watching her body blink out against the cityscape makes me think of the disappearing baby girls of Asia—100 million at last count in places like China and India. Where have all these baby girls gone? They get selectively aborted by families that want sons. Parents that want small families and are content with their only-child boys don’t conceive them at all. In some rural areas, baby girls get murdered at birth. Writer Mary Ann Warren calls the 100 million missing “gendercide,” and that’s not hyperbole: 100 million girls nobody wanted, and a surplus of sexually frustrated young men who will become adults untethered to civilizing institutions like marriage and family. Good luck with that, Asia.
Gendercide as a phenomenon has only grown with the advent of prenatal ultrasound, but it’s an idea even us Americans have slowly become accustomed to since childhood. Gender imbalance spans many cartoons, not just anime: There’s more boys than girls on SpongeBob SquarePants. On The Smurfs. On Teen Titans. On Motorcity. On Tron: Uprising. On Phineas and Ferb. On Ben 10. On, most ironically, Ni Hao, Kai-lan. On Ninjago. (Speaking of LEGO, animator David Pickett made a serious study of their gender imbalance since the introduction of figurines into the play sets. It’s not promising: just like in China, females have slowly been disappearing since the 1970s.) Put it this way: in some countries, the future will look like the Power Rangers, two gals to every three guys—and when that’s what kids grow up watching, it won’t seem so amiss.
I can’t presume to undo centuries of patriarchy with better cartoons, but it’s proven that when females on TV have power and presence, life gets better for women. It’s happened in Brazil, where telenovelas that depicted affluent women with small families were a contributing factor in shaving down Brazil’s formidable birthrate, and it can happen elsewhere. Making sure female characters get equal screen time could mean triumphs as subtle as another generation of girls spared fighting over who gets to be Cheetara this time and as far-reaching as a world where women know they matter, on- and off-screen. And judging from the unfolding gendercide catastrophe in China and India, there’s no time to waste. What’s that noise in your brain today, Kusanagi? It’s not just that time of the month. It’s just time.
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