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.