Fire Emblem and the Problem of Depictions

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.

So, succinctly:

  • 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.

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21 Responses to Fire Emblem and the Problem of Depictions

  1. To answer your first question, it’s the blonde man with glasses.

    Do YOU think Fire Emblem has any “depth” ? What do you mean by such?

    How do you compare him with Leeron fron TTGL, and Bobby Margot from Macross Frontier?

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Well, he is just my jumping off point, but we could look at it in a few different ways. Compared to the other minor Heroes, he has slightly more characterization. However, is most of his characterization related to the fact that he is gay? Yes, which would argue against there being much depth there. Which is, essentially, the reason I started with him – not only is he present-day, he also encompasses the issue as a whole, since he as a character has both strong points and disappointingly stereotyped ones.

      As for comparing him with the characters you’ve mentioned, I haven’t seen any TTGL and I’ve only seen the first Macross Frontier movie and don’t remember the character you mentioned, so I can’t.

  2. I guess Fire Emblem’s character initially irritated me not because of the gay angle exclusively, but because he was a gay minority. I’ve seen this somewhat regularly where the lone person of color is also made to double as the gay character of choice for a show. The pilot of the Macross Frontier from that show is one who immediately comes to mind, though he was an awesome dude. There’s a history of minority characters, especially black characters being characterized in that way to make them less threatening and more appealing. It irked me initially, but as the show wore on I learned to accept and like him.

    The point about the gay character groping their heterosexual counterparts is also another tired characterization technique I would rather not see. Hell, it would be nice if it DIED. And it’s not just the gay characters (I’m trying to use the terminology correctly here), but lesbian ones, too. Easiest example for me would be Chizuru from Bleach. I found it kinda cool that he threw in a lesbian character into the show. I found much less than cool that she was another of those “gropers” that gets nosebleeds and gets punched out for the groping occasionally. It’s like saying that just because the female likes vagina she has to act like a horny, horny dude.

    I’m sure there are examples of good, subtle gay and lesbian characters, but they are so few and far between in my experience that I can’t think of any at the moment. Anyway, enjoyed the post. Keep it up.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      You’re exactly right about racial minorities and homosexuality in media; I personally opted to not go into that in the post since I was trying to keep it more to the point on the LGBT aspect and stereotyping. I am actually reminded of this advertisement I saw in a magazine once, which depicted an Asian man who looked rather ‘metrosexual’ and under whom the question ‘GAY OR ASIAN?’ was written (amusingly enough, the other version of the ad showed a “metrosexual”-looking guy with ‘GAY OR JESUS?’ written beneath it).

      I agree; groping as a province of the homosexual needs to be retired as a trope. Maybe in a decade or so we can dust it off, and have it used sparingly, since it is a useful way to reinforce that someone is a creep (so long as it isn’t “this person is a creep because they are gay, and we can tell because they are molesting this person”), but for now it needs to go away. Its kind of funny to look at the general contrast between the two in more mainstream works – dude is groping dude, creepy! Lady is groping lady, HOT! Talk about a window on the psyche.

      Glad you liked the post.

  3. treeofjessie says:

    this post is so awesome, and you say so many things that are both frequently not included in the usual, “big” talking points, but that i happen to think are really important. grats. and thanks!!

    but can i please please please please please get a Q on the end of LGBT? 😦

    also a note on your use of “transgenderism;” it may be wiser and more inclusive to just say “trans?” i use “trans*” personally (because the wildcard prompts people to stop and consider, and often even ask me wtf i am doing haha), but like… i struggle with these kinds of things, because the last thing i want to do is TELL someone what to say.

    however i know and have known plenty of trans* folks whom you would probably identify as “transgender,” that really have a distaste for that label. i know, it’s the commonly accepted polite, proper way to talk about trans* babes right now, but as my friend mark put it so succinctly to me a few weeks ago when talking about why he personally prefers the term “transsexual”:

    “it’s my sex that’s transitioning, not my gender (that’s static).”

    mind you, trans* politics are a lot more complicated than this, obviously: not everyone feels their gender is static like mark does. and this is me not even getting STARTED on whether or not there is as much of a difference between the nature of what we call “sex” and what we call “gender,” anyway (protip: physical “sex” attributes really are just as performative as most of us in-the-know folks already consider gender). point is: trans* identities are a spectrum, and not a single, unique identity.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      I tend to default to ‘transgender’ since ‘transsexual’ has a lot of negative connotations, although I probably should just go with ‘trans’ although in my head I cannot help but hear the echo of ‘tranny’ when I do so. I find it very interesting that your friend identifies as transsexual given that, as I said, its built up a lot of negative connotations over the years, although it makes perfect sense as your friend explains it.

      I tend to dispense with the ‘Q’ since it is never clear unless explicitly stated if one means ‘queer’ or ‘questioning’. I personally loathe, loathe, loathe the term ‘queer’. I just have a very visceral reaction to it. I know, I know – reclamation efforts and all that jazz, but I still cannot stand it.

      Other things that irritate me in terminology: when people use ‘GLBT’. Dammit, folks, can’t the ladies come first for once? Geez.

      • treeofjessie says:

        haha WORD.

        question: why does it matter that if is not explicitly stated to be queer or questioning?

        see here is my thing: i NEED that q in there. if nothing else, to keep people from erasing me.

        i reeeeally dislike bi (and this is a personal identity thing: i have no feelings about it when other people choose to use it) because i feel like it is too binary-enforcing, and that’s completely busted. there are more than two types of people, and i am attracted to and have a history of dating some of those nonbinary folks.

        pansexual has enjoyed some popularity, and while it does come closer to describing me, i do not like its very rapey implications.

        if i ever said “omni(sexual)” there would be maybe three people on earth that understand what i am trying to get at.

        i like queer (and please understand: i don’t mean to tell you that you should, too. i GET having wiggy feelings about words) specifically because it is so vague. queer means queered means not typical. so: anyone who isn’t het/cis/blahblah. which is a LOT of us human beings out there. i like it because it describes me while at the same time being the least specific possible. because my sexuality is queer in a whooooole bag of ways. queer as in not straight. queer as in kinky. queer as in not necessarily monogamous. queer as in fuck you.

        because why the fuck should i have to identify myself for anyone else?

        i know who i am.

      • treeofjessie says:

        here is a thing, as well:

        you seem to be pretty okay with “gay.”

        been on a high school campus, lately? or better yet – college campus? (frat house?) offices are bad, too. as are construction sites, factories, bars, malls, places where humans cluster in general…
        i mean… you wanna talk about negative connotations… if that’s enough to steer you clear of a word, then golly – you might find yourself with a dwindling vocabulary pretty quickly.

        really, i suspect that your reason for not liking “queer” is probably more than that… but by eliminating it, please know that you are erasing ME. much like the people who assume you are straight…

      • A Day Without Me says:

        Uh, I’m in the military – trust me, I know plenty about negative connotations.

      • A Day Without Me says:

        Sorry, had to be terser earlier than I would’ve liked; in terms of etymology, ‘gay’ when used negatively is something which came from outside the community and long after the community had embraced the word, claiming a word with positive denotations and connotations for themselves. On the other hand, ‘queer’ was imposed from outside and was a negative word even prior to its imposition upon the community. So comparing the two is an apples and oranges game. A better comparison would be between ‘fag’ and ‘queer’, as ‘fag’ is inherently negative and was also externally imposed. However, ‘fag’ is not a term that is being considered for reclamation by the larger community, so it obviously isn’t a perfect comparison. It is also a more violent word as it carries with it the baggage of death as the punishment for being different from what was considered the norm.

        ‘Pansexual’ is also problematic as a term since it is one primarily appropriated by young women who are involved with the community but are “straight” and who feel a need to identify as something other than that in order to be taken seriously as a potential ally or advocate. It also is used by fans by Torchwood who have latched onto it since a character in that show is identified as ‘pansexual’. Said character is ID’d as such because the show has space aliens of various species floating around in it, and he’s attracted to them, too.

        I’ll also be honest – I’m sure this is not your intent, but you come off as condescending at points. I am well-versed in the sub-issues and arguments and vocabulary of community. I understand that assumptions about knowledge generally cannot be made, but the tone does remain, nevertheless.

        Maybe then you’d like for there to be LGBT* in addition to trans*? If other people want to include the ‘Q’, I don’t really care, but, as I said, I have a visceral hatred for the term ‘queer’.

  4. I’d argue that Fire Emblem stands apart from Leeron and his ilk simply because the world of Tiger & Bunny is, from the ground up, constructed to be multicultural: essentially a New York with a retro SF angle.

    Fire Emblem never faces racism just because he’s gay, and it’s implied that it’s never been the case (by him being the president of his own company). When he molests Rock Bison the latter rejects him simply because he doesn’t appreciate his advances (i.e. he’s straight); when he suggests that Kotetsu spends the night with him, the latter politely refuses with an excuse (“your arm would be a hard pillow”), not with a “eww, I’m not gay like you”. That, in my mind, is a pretty essential difference.

    However, in the interviews the producers have mentioned that even though he’s “the most mature one” of the heroes and “has the most life experience” of them, he stills “harbors a deep loneliness” behind his cheery facade. That would indicate that the producers still regard him a bit of an “outsider” from the society, but maybe I’m just overthinking it a bit…

    And of course, there are the scenes where it’s implied that he identifies as a female, which imply the Japanese view that “gay” and “transsexual’ are the same thing. But nevertheless.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Again, it isn’t that Fire Emblem is inherently bad in and of himself – its that in the aggregate such a depiction is problematic, because the stereotyped gay man is the most common depiction. Rock Bison may turn him down simply because Rock Bison is not interested in men, but that Fire Emblem repeatedly makes unwanted advances on the other man is troubling, again since this is a fairly common trope for gay characters. I actually liked the bit with him offering Kotetsu a night in his bed since it was pretty clear that he was speaking primarily in jest; I also don’t mind his flirtatious comments to Bunny, either, since its mainly teasing.

      Or, put more simply, Fire Emblem hits on and makes advances on straight men time and time again, something that fits neatly with negative stereotypes about gay men. If he were the only one doing it in anime, it wouldn’t present as much of a problem, since having solely positive depictions is as problematic as solely negative ones. But as a total trend its not a good thing.

      As for the conflation by Sunrise of homosexuality and trans-ness… well, that’s a whole other post if I really wanted to dig into it. I honestly do think that it is more a matter of Sunrise being dumb and unaware as opposed to a deliberate attempt at obfuscation, but its still pretty frustrating.

      • I don’t think it’s a problem with Sunrise per se, because I think it’s fairly common in ALL Japanese media.

        It’s a product of common Asian values. If you’re not conforming to the society, you are living an “alternative lifestyle” – and after that the society just tends to treat you like a stereotypical outsider, not caring whether you’re gay, bi, transsexual or transvestite.

      • A Day Without Me says:

        I agree with you – it is hardly a Sunrise issue, but an overall media and culture one. I just more meant that I don’t think it is a decision made in green rooms and boardrooms for malicious reasons; I think there’s just a total lack of thoughtfulness about it and most of the folks involved would express surprise that their depictions were offensive in some manner.

        This is why I am into the consciousness-raising approach to ending bigotry; most people just don’t even realize to begin with that there is something wrong. Point it out, and explain it, and, yes, some folks go on the defensive, but a lot also have a wake-up moment.

  5. jpmeyer says:

    Maybe Fire Emblem isn’t the problem. Maybe ur not meant 4 anime.

    (Or maybe your problem is that you’re not a serious anime fan!)

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Well, I am obviously not a serious fan since I consider G Gundam to be the best Gundam series there is!

  6. I wish I knew more about Japanese culture to understand why gay characters always ending up this way. Is it casual homophobia, ignorance, parody, taking cues from perceived western stereotypes or just the notion that anime fans will not be able understand gay characters unless they’re flaming/ott camp/gropers etc?

    There’s obviously a market for it in Japan, such as the popularity for the TV character ‘Hard Gay’ (YouTube him; he’s a bit like Borat, if Borat was simply used to parody gay people instead of mocking people for their cultural ignorance and misconceptions), so I guess the casual homophobia does stick. I say ‘casual’ because, as you’ve pointed out with Fire Emblem, there are often positive, nuanced sides to these characters. The transsexual couple in Shangri-La is another good example; they’re a both warm, loving people, often struggling with their own identity and insecurities, but naturally the emotional impact of such ideas are negated by their ott pantomime performances. Even the transsexual in Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfather’s has the same air about her, despite the characters in his works coming across as more believable and lifelike.

    Personally, I’d conclude that the majority of anime writer don’t really understand how to write gay characters, or at least ones whose sexually isn’t the sole focus of their personality, rather than a facet; and seeing as stereotypes, considered negative by us in the western world, are still culturally accepted, it’s ultimately easy to see why ‘camp’ wins out over everything else.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Oh man, I know about Hard Gay, that’s for sure. Hysterically enough, a bisexual male friend of mine was a HUGE fan.

      I think its even more basic than not knowing how to write gay characters – I think they don’t really know any real, live gay people, which in turn makes writing one effectively pretty difficult. I honestly think that if you asked the creators and writers, in a lot of cases they’d be surprised that there was something bad about their depictions.

      As for stereotypes being seen as negative in the West… well, not universally. Its gotten a lot better, but when a significant chunk of the population still thinks LGBT folks are going to hell and prey on children to convert them to gay-ness, there’s still clearly a problem.

    • Basically, it’s OK to be gay in Japan if you only do it on a stage – and after that go home to your wife and kids. The main reason Western people often mistake Noh theather or Takarazuka actors as “gender-bending” is misunderstanding this fact. They are both ENFORCING gender roles; a man can dress up as a woman and vice versa as long as they do it on a stage (or in TV).

      In the West conservative people are by and large against gays doing “gay things”, not BEING gay. Ask any priest or gay-hating politician – they’ll say that gays are welcome as long as they don’t do anything sinful like have gay sex, and will remind you that there’s more to life than just sex.

      This is completely the opposite of what it is in the East. It’s OK to ACT gay, and everything will just think it’s silly. That’s what Hard Gay is about, right? But if you IDENTIFY as a gay person you are rebelling against the society and your family – not taking a wife, not siring offspring and preserving the family bloodline. THAT is what makes being gay bad to Eastern conservatives.

  7. Foxy Lady Ayame says:

    Reblogged this on compass on my field trip and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  8. Have you watched “Tiger and Bunny: The Rising” yet? Because I thought that it was really stunning how they did his storyline in that movie. In the series he didn’t get as much fleshing out as the other characters so it was nice to see. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on whether the movie changes your view.

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