The Genre of My Discontent: The Disappearance of Girls’ Sports Shows in the Face of the Idol Anime Juggernaut

cinderella girls

Where did all the girl athletes go?

As I did chores earlier, I started thinking about idol anime. Earlier this year, I tried the first episode of Idolmaster Cinderella Girls when the new show first aired, and while I didn’t exactly dislike it, I didn’t find it terribly engaging either. More recently, after watching so many folks express their affection for the show even as they also frequently stated that the first season wasn’t very good, I became curious enough to try a couple more episodes. And… it wasn’t totally bad, although my larger discomfort with idols as a concept and the idol industry remained strong as I watched.

But, as I scrubbed a sink, I reflected on the fact that if you want to watch an anime with a large female cast that isn’t a harem, idol shows are the primary game in town. This is particularly true if you want to watch a show in which the focus is on female characters as they strive for a goal, and in which there is an aspect of competition going on. I’ve many times since finishing Love Live complained that the biggest problem with it is that it utterly fails to do anything with its potential to be a solid sports anime-type show. Groups of school idols competing with one another in a tournament? It’s a scenario begging to be given the sports treatment! They even set it up further to be like this, as we’ve got the unerdog, scrappy school battling for relevancy up against the ultra-elite academy in its very own neighborhood. To me, the paper-thin characterization of the girls becomes less of an issue if the show had gone with the sports angle rather than the sitcom-y, after-school TV approach. This wouldn’t have made it necessarily unique or novel in the sports genre, but since the show is allegedly about a rough-hewn team of girls trying to save their school by becoming popular school idols, it would’ve been arguably more compelling. The show does attempt to make some vague gestures toward there being a possibility of μ’s not coming out on top, but its perfunctory at best (and rendered irrelevant by the fact that even not being able to make it to that competition, the school’s enrollment for the next year has risen, so, woohoo! the school is saved! …except, wait, how can enrollment have risen when they weren’t going to accept new students anyway…?).

I bring up sports shows because I believe that the idol show has subsumed the girls sports show for the most part. If you consider girls sports anime, its interesting to note that a lot of them were targeted at a seinen audience – Battle Athletes Victory, Taisho Baseball Girls, Yawara, Princess Nine, Bamboo Blade… Ro-Kyu-Bu. But they’ve become pretty sparse on the ground – I had to go back all the way to Summer 2013 to find one, which was Ro-Kyu-Bu’s second season (Chihayafuru’s second season, for comparison with a girls sports show for a female audience, was Winter 2013) . If we stretch the definition a bit, we can bring that date forward by a year for Sabagebu, Summer 2014, but I’ve never come across any arguments for counting that as a sports show, and I’d argue that structurally it isn’t one, just the same as Aoharu x Machinegun wasn’t, either. The survival game-as-a-club-activity genre has elements of competition in it, but doesn’t follow the structure that shows like Kuroko’s Basketball, Aim for Ace!, or Baby Steps do. (And, yes, I know, Aoharu x Machingegun isn’t about a school club, but its more like that than not.) (And, yes, I’m also aware that an anime adapting a manga about a girls bicycling club has been announced, but there’s no word yet on what form it’ll take or when its going to happen. A gap of at least two and a half years from Ro-Kyu-Bu to this doesn’t undermine my argument.)

But, while girls sports shows have vanished, the idol genre has only grown, and there are certainly no signs of it stopping. Even with terrible production delays marring its broadcast run, Cinderella Girls has sold tens of thousands of Blu-rays and DVDs so far. It’s also only a matter of time before Love Live Sunshine gets its own anime adaptation in light of the record-breaking sales figures for Love Live’s Blu-rays, DVDs, and the sheer volume of tickets its movie sold while in theaters. I talk about all this, and was thinking about all of this, out of a sense of frustration. I like girls sports shows, because even when they’re also meant to give their male audiences fanservice, by centering the story on female characters striving for a goal, they grant importance to their female characters. Unlike in harems, the girls are important in and of themselves, not because a bland boy lead happens to interact with them. Ultimately, these sorts of shows are indicative that girls matter because their stories are presented as being worthy of attention. (But, this is also why the likes of Ro-Kyu-Bu couldn’t prove engaging for me; even setting aside the vomit-inducing character designs, by installing a male coach as the center of the story, the story ceases to be about the girl athletes themselves.)

I don’t like the idol industry. Its creepy, it treats its stars as objects, and it encourages its fanbase to view women and girls as consumer goods rather than as people. In particular, its denial of sexual agency for its performers is gross. Its also repeatedly been connected with organized crime, and sex trafficking, as the girls and women who’ve had meticulously managed public personae are pimped out to wealthy clients for sex. This is all the more ethically dubious when considering that the industry encourages ever younger girls to sign lengthy contracts with stipulations built in that an average twelve year old doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand – and, no, that parents must sign off on these, too, doesn’t negate their unethical nature.

Given all this, I’m reluctant to watch shows about idols, especially since those shows airbrush the reality. Its been argued that “fake” idols help to assuage the issue, as they deal with solely fictional entities, but this isn’t entirely true. In the case of Love Live, since many fans identify the voice actresses directly with the characters themselves – unsurprising, considering the way live concerts are constructed! – and as such, the same negative fan behaviors seen with fanbases for idols who don’t have 2D versions pop up. Wake Up Girls! set itself up the same way, and has had some similar issues, albeit on a smaller scale since this particular franchise hasn’t garnered the same success as other idol franchises have.

Going back specifically to the sports show comparison – I’m, too, troubled by the switch from shows in which girls were trying to excel in sports to shows wherein the end goal is to be famous and have people look at you largely for being cute/sexy and wearing cute/sexy outfits. In sports shows, while there is often an implicit understanding that if one becomes top of their sport, people are going to be paying attention to them, this isn’t the focus – the focus is on defeating other opponents on the field of play. (Perhaps interestingly, shows of intense affection by crowds is much more common in sports shows about boys. Audience members shrieking and swooning in a show like Haikyuu bear much more resemblance to the fans in idol shows than they do to fans in shows like Princess Nine.) Wanting to be famous as an idol isn’t necessarily inherently bad, but it does have to be seen in a larger context wherein girls and women have historically been viewed as ornamental objects at best, and have also been encouraged to view themselves as such. It is also problematic when it displaces stories that weren’t underpinned by girls striving to be famous for their ability to appeal to primarily male audiences.

Yet, as I’ve said before – if, as a fan, you want to watch shows about girls working hard in a competitive environment, there isn’t much to choose from outside of idol shows these days. So, I gritted my teeth frequently while watching the second season of AKB0048 (and specifically the second season, as the first managed to, surprisingly, avoid a lot of the off-putting pandering bits like girls telling men that they’re not allowed to be touched by them since they’re idols), because I really liked watching the girls interact with each other, build relationships, and pursue rivalries. I watched Love Live in the fleeting hope for a sports-approach (a hope that was slowly ground out of existence while I dragged myself slowly through it). And, here I am, probably going to end up watching Cinderella Girls since people have managed to convince me that there must be something decent in there for people who want to watch girls take a story’s center stage and work together and compete and grow. Grasping at straws! Maybe the real answer is – stick to manga.

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10 Responses to The Genre of My Discontent: The Disappearance of Girls’ Sports Shows in the Face of the Idol Anime Juggernaut

  1. iblessall says:

    Yes!! While I don’t necessarily share your discomfort with idol anime (I personally see some extremely important redeeming elements in them), Chihayafuru is one of my favorite shows and I’ve lately been wondering why there aren’t more shows like it—or more shows like Kuroko or Haikyuu!! featuring girls as the main characters. Haikyuu!! has even, at times, given us a glimpse into the world of the girls’ volleyball team at the featured high school, but in general their presence is more important as thematic support for the boys.

    I will celebrate the day we get a well-animated, compelling, non-fanservice girls’ sports show. Hopefully we don’t have to wait too long for it.

    • deepbluejeer says:

      May I direct both of you to Kaleido Star? It’s a show about acrobatics and circus performances that manages to mix in the performance aspects of idol shows and the rivalry/competition aspects of sports anime.

      • A Day Without Me says:

        Perhaps amusingly, once upon a time I got perhaps as close to watching it as one can while still failing. I owned the first two volumes of the ADV release, but lent them to a friend before I got the chance to see any of it. I never got them back as our friendship abruptly ended before she returned them! What a pissed off thirteen year old that made me…

        Given how inexpensive the season sets are, and that it has been rattling around my “to watch” list for well over a decade now, I should probably take the plunge and get to it at last.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      I would be so, so, so delighted to get a spin-off of Haikyuu for the girls team. I really liked what we saw of them, and I think they’ve got a compelling story to tell, too. Unfortunately, I think the chance of us getting an official version of their story is unlikely; wonder if there’s any fanwork out there that does this…?

      Truly, I would even settle for a resurgence of the older seinen approach to girls sports stories. Something like Princess Nine has some fanservice, but, damn, at least the girls look like high school athletes and not spherically-proportioned five year olds.

  2. arbitrary_greay says:

    Idol anime is the middle ground between “cute girls doing cute things” and sports show. Because of the vague nature of how success is obtained in idolling, they can faff around with CGDCT shenanigans, but still flirt with the competitive aspect. This also suckers in those who normally dislike CGDCT because of an actual plot hook. So not only does the audience get the moe of watching girls work hard, (as per sports show) they get the bonus of knowing the girls are working hard for us, the audience. Yeah, it is a little icky. (says the very big fan of 3D idols)

    The only other genre you might get girls working hard together is in magical girls, but sometimes they also have a male lead to focus on, and whether or not there’s a competitive aspect against other girls depends on the show.

  3. WiBa says:

    Correlation does not equal causation. Just because there has been an increase in the number of Idol Anime in comparison to girls sports anime does not necessarily mean that it caused the decrease of ‘girls sports anime.’ That would be like saying the sheer number of shows like Gochuumon, K-On and other assorted shows with Cute Girls is causing the decline of the mecha anime genre.

    Let’s look at the airing dates of the various examples you have given. Ro-Kyu-Bu last aired in 2013, Bamboo Blade in 2008, Princess Nine in 1998. For reference sake, I think we can safely say the Idol Boom started around 2012 with relatively popular idol or idol-related shows like Aikatsu, AKB0048, Pretty Rhythm: Rainbow Live and Puchim@s. This was then followed by shows like Love Live in 2013, WUG/Locodol/LL2 etc in 2014 and LL/Venus Project/Million Doll/CG etc in 2015. Aikatsu and Pretty Rhythm are long-running children shows.

    So let’s use 2013 as the marker (last RoKyuBu anime and start of anime boom) If we accept that Girls Sports show have disappeared, then it has nothing to do with Idol shows as the shows were already rare to begin with and I think the trend would show that the shows have disappeared just as the Idol boom started. If Idol Anime were responsible, I think we would see a gradual decrease in a number of productions from perhaps 3 to 2 then 1.

    I will also posit secondly that Idol Anime has not cause the vanishment of girls sports anime as given the long wait between such rare shows it is more likely that you will have to wait a few years (perhaps 3-4) for the next show of such a description.

    So onto ‘subsuming’ as in whether Idol Anime have absorbed such shows into the gigantic, amorphous pink blob powered by yen and the salt of those who never got their favourite card or enough screentime for the ‘best girl.’ Yes, shows like LL share the same theme with Bamboo Blade. However, I think that the whole idea of the underdog vs the more powerful rival is too common or universal a theme to be exclusive to just girls sports anime. Yes, we see it with sports shows but we also see it in non-sports shonen like Naruto (Naruto v Sasuke) and or Bakuman (Niizuma v Ashirogi Muto). If we stretch the definition even more we can probably see it in harems/LNs like Unbreakable Machine Doll where an average student with low grades has to battle against students/puppeteer magicians who scored much higher. Given how universal the theme is, I think then that Idol shows did not necessarily take it from sports show as we can’t just pin it down to that, we could also conclude it could be from shonen or damn even fantasy books (Voldemort v Harry Potter).

    • A Day Without Me says:

      I don’t think your initial comparison is useful. Yes, correlation doesn’t necessarily equate with causation, but the examples you use don’t really work because mech shows declined as other toy-purchase-delivery systems increased – see stuff like Yu Gi Oh, Pokemon, even Yokai Watch. This is also why, by the way, Sunrise ended up making a Gundam show in which the Gundams were gunpla versions, as this mimicked more closely the successful business model of collect-and-battle. (Build Fighters, by the way, didn’t really sell well as a show, but it did bump gunpla sales enough to get Sunrise to make a second season of it.) Little boys didn’t stop watching mech because they were watching K-ON instead – they stopped watching it because they were watching Pokemon instead. Meanwhile, girls sports shows were primarily for a seinen audience post-1990 (or so), and the seinen market is what powers the likes of Love Live and Idolm@ster. (Meanwhile, and on a slightly different note, magical girl shows for girls have largely been replaced by idol-type shows like Aikatsu and Pripara.)

      You also cherry-picked the shows I mentioned a bit to give a much larger spread than is really the case. For example; sure, Princess Nine aired in 1998, but there were shows that I mentioned in the gap between that and Bamboo Blade. We also know that there are no girls sports show slated for Winter 2016, and probably for Spring as well.

      While the underdog-coming-up from under thing is certainly universal, idol shows tend to execute it in a manner that is more similar to how its done in sports shows writ large than in, say, shounen battle series. There are teams, or groups, and they compete in a quantifiable way. For most idol shows, this is about getting to perform the most, or doing the most appearances, or selling the most, although Love Live and Aikatsu do make it more clearly similar to sports shows by having tournament material.

  4. WiBa says:

    On Idol anime and it’s themes. As you said it is not necessarily a bad thing to want to become an Idol since it is at the end of the day, a performer who sings and dances (and possibly acts). I think Idol groups are analogous then to similar all girl groups of the 90s like Spice Girls. Celebrating becoming a popular Idol also means celebrating becoming good at dancing and singing and I think that it is a good thing to encourage girls to excel in physical and musical creative activities. I don’t know how much training goes into preparing for a concert but I can assume that it is a lot given how out of sync I was with that one dance I was in back in High School. Are Idols designed to appeal for the male view? Maybe but if their songs did not sound reasonably good, I personally would not listen to them nor care about the group. I imagine the same can be said for major groups like AKB48. They started out small, released some reasonably good singles and then backed that up with endless marketing.

    So onto the creepy side of the Idol Industry. Yes, that it is undoubtedly a negative thing that performers have to be locked into awful contracts among other things. As you said though however Idol Anime quite often exists in a vacuum outside these bad things and it’s quite possible to watch them without these things being written in. Why? There is of course the themes you mention but I also believe that one of the main appeal also comes from the music. When you watch an Idol Anime like with following an Idol, you can support their music but not support all the other bad things. People who watch any show come in with their own views already formed and I believe that the majority come in with strong moral views. Personally I detest the treatment of Idols such as AKB48 but I still listen to some Idol music as I think they are enjoyable and well-composed. You can watch Breaking Bad without condoning drug use. Celebrate the performers and music not the negativity.

    On LL’s fans. So far the only disgusting incident I recall is the twitter storm that happened after someone got beaten up for a chocolate which Yurika threw into the crowd. Somehow she ended up being blamed by trolls. I hope that it’s the last incident but it has been the only incident in Love Live’s 5 year history.

    The question remains, should we have a Idol anime that does not exist in a vacuum? I would not mind and I concede that. However, my only caveat is that the anime also explores the usual theme- girls trying hard to get to the top, girls performing good music.

    On final thoughts.
    AKB0048- This is closer to Code Geass then girls competing. It is more or less about a ragtag rebel group fighting against an oppressive regime who has banned all music. Odd place to look for a show about competition but I suppose you could say it’s a competition of ideals (freedom as represented by music vs dictatorship) if you’re politically-minded.
    CG- I have not finished the series yet but from second-hand information (reviews, imageboards), it really just descends into corporate shenanigans with one boss pushing a business model which will terminate the contracts of several girls.

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