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Monday, 3 June 2013

MissRepresentation: Women in Cosplay and Anime

By Hayley Johnson

One of the most enjoyable things about being an anime fan is cosplay. Cosplay, short for “costume play”, is essentially dressing up as your favourite characters from your favourite anime series. When I was asked to talk about women in anime, cosplay was one of the first things that came to mind, tightly bound as it is with the anime community. With that in mind, I realised something. I don't really cosplay girls that much. This was something that I'd only really considered briefly before now and I hadn't really touched on why this was. After some thought though, I figured something out: I would be uncomfortable cosplaying a fair amount of the female characters from series that I follow, or have followed in the past.

Take, for instance, one of the more famous anime series out there, Ghost in the Shell. Out of three films and two series, I watched all but one of the movies. It's deep, thoughtful, political and all packaged in the cyberpunk trappings that I have a fondness for. To top it all off, the main protagonist is the female and utterly awesome Major Motoko Kusanagi. There are few series or characters that I have gotten as much enjoyment and discussion out of. But I couldn't ever cosplay her. Why? Because I could not wear her default outfit with any kind of comfort.

Now I have no problem with female characters wearing skimpy outfits, so long as it makes sense in the context of the scene or series. In this case, I have no clue why a member of a counter-terrorist armed response unit would think, “Yeah, a leotard and thigh high boots are perfect for my day at work.” She does wear more sensible clothing elsewhere in the series, but I can't but compare her to her in-show male colleagues, who never reach the same level of undress. 

Unfortunate outfit aside, she is resourceful, intelligent and can hold her own in situations where she is ridiculously outnumbered and outgunned; it honestly kills me to realise that I am sitting here and critiquing one of my favourite female anime characters ever, but I can't not mention this. At the very least, I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that she's nowhere near as bad as the female characters in hentai. (I would comment further on that genre, but I won't, because I'm not qualified to criticise what I haven't watched and because I think the very existence of tentacle rape speaks for itself.)

Speaking of famous series, and characters that I would never cosplay from them, I suppose that I would be remiss were I to neglect Naruto, a series that has been running in comic form since 1999 and has currently clocked in at over 500 episodes in anime form. Quite impressive for a series about ninjas in inappropriately bright clothing. The first major female character that you meet is a girl by the name of Sakura Haruno; she's been assigned to the same squad as the title character and another boy named Sasuke. You would think that since she's training to be a ninja, she would be a pretty cool example of how female portrayal should go. Nope. She quickly gets relegated to the sidelines as cheerleader while the boys have these epic, multi-episode battles. This continues pretty much throughout the series until the two year time skip in the middle of the series. After the series reconvenes, we're introduced to an older, wiser Sakura. At first she seemed to have gone through a positive shift, showing that she could recreate an earthquake with her fist.

Maybe this was a sign that she would finally be pulled out of the decorative cheerleader role, become so much more valuable as a team member. Unfortunately that was a short-lived hope, as Naruto seemed to have improved to levels of godhood while the fans weren't looking, so she sort of adopted the medic role instead. Don't get me wrong: having played enough roleplaying games for one lifetime, a medic is always appreciated. There was just such potential for her to be awesome and self-reliant, someone who I would be happy to cosplay. As it is, she's a disappointment in almost every sense.

I feel like I'm doing anime a disservice right now. I've managed to be completely negative about a series I love and a series that I used to follow religiously (before things got weird). And that's not what anime is about. I'm going to talk about two anime, a film and a series, whose main female characters encapsulate the best that a character can embody, regardless of gender.

The first is the Studio Ghibli film Laputa: Castle in the Sky, a film in which the main character, a young girl Sheeta, is relentlessly pursued by kidnappers and pirates because of a magic amulet related to the title's castle in the sky.

 The second is a science-fiction anime series called Noein: To Your Other Self, where the main character, another young girl (this time by the name Haruka), is fought over by two warring alternate futures who believe that she is the key to either save or destroy reality as we know it, as well as all other possible realities. In both these anime, these characters are pit against overwhelming odds that they are ill-equipped to handle by themselves. In spite of these odds, they soldier on and manage to succeed through determination and faith in their friends. Despite enemies with far superior numbers and equipment. Despite having to navigate the confusing experience that is growing up at the same time. Much as I currently love or will love other series, these two anime will probably always be amongst my favourites, with Sheeta and Haruka being just two of many many reasons.

So to those who I perhaps scared off with my criticisms earlier, I would say don't dismiss anime as a medium. It is, like any other form of media, filled with good and bad points. If you're willing to try the medium and dedicate yourself to finding the good things within it, then anime can be a treasure trove. There's always the plus side that most of the really bad stuff dies quite a quick death. I would perhaps suggest avoiding any anime with either of the following words in the description: tentacles or harem. You have been warned. 

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