Quick! Which character in this picture is the gay one?
No, no, this time I meant Nathan, not Pao-Lin!
Jokes aside, its time once again for to smack around the subject of LGBT-ness and anime. Of course, this also means it is time again to ready myself for the dumbest comments I ever garner on my blog, but, hey, shit happens… and well, nothing will ever beat this.
Today I am going to talk about why stereotype-ridden LGBT characters are problematic. I want to use Fire Emblem/Nahan from Tiger & Bunny, since he really encapsulates the issue neatly, in part because Fire Emblem isn’t wholly inherently problematic. In fact, there are a lot of good points to him – he’s not ashamed of himself, he’s happy, he has friends, he doesn’t take shit from people, and he owns his own company (and founded it because a company refused to sponsor him as a Hero because he was gay, although this was never directly mentioned in the show). He is also, unambiguously, one of the good guys. And yet, he is hardly without fault as a character; his penchant for groping straight men is a repetition of a tired stereotype, he generally identifies as being one of the “girls”, thus conflating homosexuality with trans-ism, and he can very easily be interpreted as having been added to the cast solely for extra laughs.
You’ve probably noticed that I don’t say outright that he is a walking stereotype. And that is because, well, a total flamer character (if you’ll excuse the pun) isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Its sort of like how making a villain LGBT isn’t inherently a bad thing by itself. The community has plenty of sinners, and saints as well. The issue occurs when either a. the character’s sexuality/gender identity is bound up with their villainy in simplistic fashion (I say simplistic since having a bad guy who kills homophobes because he was almost beaten to death by one once isn’t the same as a villain who is bad because he is gay), or b. because there is such a dearth of these characters to begin with.
I’m more interested in this second bit.
So, to start with, there are many, many fewer LGBT characters in mass media than there are straight characters; this isn’t an issue confined merely to anime/manga. Because there are less LGBT characters, the effect of having even just a few ultra-stereotyped characters is outsized. I don’t have a problem with “minority” characters being “bad” (in fact, my favorite female characters are generally those who behave quite horribly… so long as it isn’t “they are doing this because they are female” territory). Its just when these are the only or most common ones that it becomes an issue.
I used “minority” here in an American sense and to cast the net wider, because this doesn’t just apply to LGBT characters, and I’m ultimately going beyond anime/manga with this. It applies to female characters, characters of color, characters from religious minorities, etc. A crappy heterosexual male character may be crappy, but heterosexual male characters are a dime a dozen; there is plenty counterbalance there. We may be irritated with the writers for doing a poor job with him, but it won’t have much of an impact on people’s perceptions of heterosexual males or on pop culture trends. Meanwhile, a crappy Mormon character furthers negative perceptions and hardens the tendency to resort to stereotypes insofar as Mormon characters are concerned.
Before anyone argues that no one takes nods from popular culture for their opinions of groups of people, consider this: just watching a TV show with regularly appearing LGBT characters increases the chance that a person will be in support of equal rights for LGBT people and not view LGBT folks negatively. That’s pretty impressive.
I would like to clarify a bit, by the way, on the matter of stereotyped characters not being inherently problematic. A big chunk of this is also tied into whether the character is actually a character, or if they’re just a shallow plot-device/titillation-device/whatever-device. I’m willing to give some way with Fire Emblem on this, as he’s depicted in roughly the same level of detail as most of the other not-Tiger and not-Bunny Heroes… which is to say, hardly given characterization at all, although he does get better treatment than Dragon Kid, Rock Bison, and Origami Cyclone on this front… although Dragon Kid is too butch by the show’s standards and Origami Cyclone is kind of girly, so maybe there is some bias here… clearly Rock Bison is a bear, after all.
Psst, that was a joke. Apparently these sorts of things sometimes need to be spelled out.
- stereotyped characters aren’t necessarily bad; when stereotyped depictions either are the only kind of the character or the most common kind of the character, it is troublesome; also, if negative traits are tied directly to their sexual orientation, race, religion, etc.
- stereotyped depictions are also bad if the character has no depth
- stereotypes in media do have an affect on people’s thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs
In closing, I’ll leave you with this, which hails from a far-funnier-than-it-should-be Fire Emblem tumblr.
EDIT: I wanted to include this excerpt from an article about the DC Comics re-boot which is meant to pull in more girls and woman as readers, because Andrew Wheeler nails what I’m talking about:
On the face of it, when each case is looked at on its own merits, there is nothing wrong with any of the decisions DC has made. Apart from the no-pants thing. There is room in comics for sexually aggressive female heroes. There is room for under-dressed bad girls, and heaven knows there always will be. There is even room in comics’ diverse landscape for bisexual strippers, alongside flamboyant gay characters, teams with just one black guy, and that one-armed junkie who beats people up with a dead cat. (They rebooted him? Aw, man!)
But first you need to build a diverse landscape. Even with good books like Wonder Woman and Batwoman, DC isn’t doing that. It only has seven female-led titles among its new 52.
I may speak primarily about LGBT characters here, but the problem extends to characters who hail from any “minority” group. Sure, I said that already, but it was also extremely exciting to see someone else make the same argument recently as well. As a reader of a lot of manga, I am very open to reading mainstream American comics… but I just see very little reason to, as a female reader. Keyword here is “mainstream” – I’ve got a bunch of indie comics I like, but I have not a single mainstream American comic in my possession, nor do I have a desire for any. Better try harder, D.C. and Marvel, or my dollars are going to just keep going to publishers like Vertical, Viz, and Fantagraphics.