Saturday, December 8, 2007

Themes, stereotypes and fiction: An Analysis

So recently there was a big to-do over on the ANN forums about Belldandy and the stereotypes of women in general. Now, just for some background the Oh My Goddess OVA was the first anime series I watched (back in the good ole year of 1996) so I have some fond memories of it.

What people kept bringing up is this idea that Belldandy is a stereotype. In particular the stereotype of the nuclear housewife, who stayed home and made sure the chores were done and was the proverbial doormat for her husband.

And honestly, it bugs me for two reasons. First humans think in stereotypes. When I say, "mailman" in America, it immedeately summons up a picture of a guy lugging around a big bag of mail as he struts down the street in his blue polyester pants and his striped shirt. Not a few years ago, it would have also summoned up the picture of workplace shootings. We have stereotypes for everything, what a rose should look like, what a person should wear in the workplace, etc, etc. These extend to words like trailer trash, geeks, nerds and yes... otaku.

Second fiction is filled with these stereotypes. Mokoto Kusinagi from GitS:Standalone Complex is a classic street samurai; Faye Valentine, a femme fatale; Shinji Ikari, the anti-hero; Amaro Rey, the boy pilot. This list goes on. These archetypes pervade fiction and can get more general than the ones I put out. Let's face it, Vash the Stampede, Claus Valca and Ayato Kamina are all classic heroes on a quest.

So calling Belldandy a stereotype is missing the point. The first question that has to be asked is, "Does she make sense in the world?" My answer is yes. I mean she decides to leave the heavens to become Keichi's girlfriend. She fills an idealized role of girlfriend, becoming a cipher to Keichi. To be fair, it wouldn't be my ideal girlfriend, but on the other hand it DOES make sense given the world we have provided for us.

So the question that people should ask themselves when they're watching this series is what does Oh My Goddess (and its TV counterpart) say about love? Does it say that self-sacrifice is a integral part of love? Or does it say that too much self-sacrifice will end up being taken for granted? Even if the show is simply nerd wish-fufillment, there is an underlying message there. And that is what people need to ask themselves about. Not whether one particular character, taken out of context, is stereotypical.


Agree or disagree? Leave a comment or e-mail


Michael said...

Have you heard of Edmund Husserl? He was the proponent of phenomenology, an aspect of philosophy. In Merleau-Ponty's introduction (who was a student of his), all of man possesses a natural bias (naturlicher weltbegriff) which is not necessarily evil (helpful, even, for some of the time) but dissuades us from seeing what is truly there. I won't go more into details, but he spoke sense, even if I'm using it in a more realistic context.

He proposes that we must go beyond these stereotypes (what you are doing), to see what is real. I think you're seeing what is real here, haha. If taken in that sense, everyone is a stereotype, and everyone is a perpetrator of stereotyping. I would agree, they're missing the point.

You know, even if you did not know it, you are actually following the steps to find the truth, at least in the phenomenological sense.

Beyond stereotyping, Belldandy is a character that a lot of people would appreciate, and she gives sense and meaning to the anime series. That is why many are fans of it.


Cameron Probert said...

Actually I haven't read Husserl. But it sounds like there's a lot of similiarity between him and a couple different concepts in pyschology. Basically the idea of a hueristic (which is a rule of thumb the brain uses to make quick decisions, for example beautiful things are good.) And the schema, which is basically what I described when I was talking about the "mailman".

Although I do think with fiction it's probably closer to Jungian archetypes than anything else. And then how those archetypes are used. And I think archetypes and stereotypes really are interchangable words. We tend to slap an unneccesary negative connotation onto the word stereotype, which always bugs me.

It always seems like people want to see the trees for the forest. Rather than analyze the series as a whole.

Mirrinus said...

You hit the nail on the head quite hard there. Personally, what bugs me when people talk about stereotypes in anime is that they seem to assume that it's intrisically negative or something. I don't really think any character type is really much better or worse in it of itself, because each character is not a self-contained system. As you have pointed out, factors like believability in the context of the story, or relations and relativity to other characters in the show, all count for far more than whether or not a character is a stereotype.

The other thing about stereotypes is that they had to have come from somewhere. They don't just randomly get created in someone's head. Stereotypes are stereotypes simply because THERE ARE PEOPLE LIKE THAT. So if you immediately assume that such stereotypes are "negative", I can only assume that you dislike such people in real life or something. Are people really so shallow that they'd be using anime or whatever other fictional medium (that's not necessarily aimed at children) as a kind of role model? I've always thought that such mediums were more of a reflection of society itself, and not an instigator of it. There are plenty more places for people to point fingers.

And finally, I'm a very jaded individual when it comes to fiction. I'm willing to bet that no character is truly unique or original, for I'm cynical enough to think that there's really nothing new under the sun. So yeah, all characters are stereotypes to me...which isn't a good or bad thing in it of itself.

Anonymous said...

adventurers, anti-heroes and femme fatales are more of archetypes than of stereotypes. well, a femme fatale is another stereotype of females too but it has also become an archetype.

i think whenever we watch anything, we should try to see if the characters are stereotypes or if they are more than that. there are a lot of anime that go beyond stereotypes. we need to go outside the box and think of one character as not a part of a group he/she is associated with but as a character on his or her own.

whether you admit it or not, females aren't like belldandy. females are more than that. women now work together with men. they are as capable as men and they just don't do all the chores, etc. of course, women and feminists will find that offensive because most women aren't like that anymore.

what if japanese anime portrayed someone who is obviously a part of your race, religion, culture, gender, etc. and they portray him or her as some kind of a stereotype of those groups? won't you find it offensive because you know that your groups are more than just that? it shows that they don't know much about your groups and just based the character on categorizations.

for example, some japanese and chinese people are probably offended by how they are portrayed in most hollywood films because they are only depicted as martial artists and criminals. italians might be offended too because they are only depicted as members of the mafia in most films.

Cameron Probert said...

Anonymous -

Before I comment, I wanted to say thank you for sharing your opinion. I welcome any disagreeing voices. Really.

My first problem is that you're attaching a negative connotation to a word that shouldn't have a negative connotation. Somewhere over the course of time "stereotype" has gotten nabbed by people who want to make a point.

A stereotype is not a bad thing. A red, glowing stove burner is stereotypically hot. That doesn't mean it's always hot, but generally we instantly would assume that it is. A blackened fruit isn't neccesarily gone bad, but we'd normally assume it is. These aren't bad stereotypes, they're actually helpful.

Which brings me to your first point that archetypes and stereotypes are different. And I want to ask how? Because I'm not seeing it. The classic hero archetype generally shares a lot of similiarities as far as character. They're brave, they rush to help their friends, etc. They are the protagonist in the story, with all that entails. That might mean that they're variations on a theme.

You do make an interesting point about seeing whether a character is a stereotype. But as a rule, you don't take the character out of the context of the story to do that. You judge their reactions with other characters. You see what type of message the series seems to be putting out. You have to judge whether the character has depth.

What people do with Belldandy is that they take her reactions out of context of the story and say "Well what if all women were like that." When in the story itself not all of the female characters are like Belldandy.

And to be fair, most anime doesn't go out of the box for it's male characters either. There are plenty of 2-D characters in anime (no pun intended). So I agree with you on that. But it isn't a question of stereotype or not stereotype.

Um... no offense. I don't think ANYONE has said that all women are like Belldandy. And I disagree, some are very much like Belldandy. Again here you are stereotyping women. I've known plenty of stay at home moms and housewives, just like I've known golddiggers.

And I hate to repeat myself, but I've already made the point that even in the world of the series not all women are like Belldandy. And the question people should ask is not whether a particular character is stereotypical but what her reactions and interactions say about love, relationships and otherwise. Just pulling a character out of context and saying that X character is stereotypical is inviting a fruitless debate.

what if japanese anime portrayed someone who is obviously a part of your race, religion, culture, gender, etc. and they portray him or her as some kind of a stereotype of those groups?

Okay, so I saved this part because I really hate this argument. Because this argument assumes that no matter what argument I make I'm going to be disingenious. But my answer is still to say, no that wouldn't be what bothered me.

As I've stated a few times in this response, but you're starting to get there. It's not the base portrayal that would upset me but the interactions and the message that was being sent out. I've made this argument about images of the media that we see in fiction. But my core problem with it is that the very basic message it sends out. Either a) the media are noble or b) the media are evil vultures. And that's done through the interactions and in context of the show.