As we close out the decade, reflecting on the "best ofs", one thing noticeably missing is a list of iconic female characters of the aughts (outside of Sex and the City.) Problem is there wasn't much to choose from.
Part of the issue with finding dynamic female characters is our strict gender binary in the US, which divides entertainment into "male" and "female" with a heavy emphasis on capturing the coveted "male, 18-30" audience and their advertising dollars. However, this has lead to our current environment of condescending programing. How can we fix this? One possible way would be to look toward Japan's pop culture landscape - and its unique view of gender, content creation, and marketing.
Researcher Mimi Ito published an interesting piece in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat, called "Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix." Ito explains how Japan's culture allows for a different type of gender coding than what we see in the US. Using examples like Pokémon and Hamtaro to show where certain franchises were coded as masculine or feminine, but were still enjoyed by children of all genders. Ito concludes:
While gender differences are resilient in Japan as elsewhere, there are also points of fluidity and crossover that differ from what we see in the United States. Japanese media mix cultures are increasingly influential overseas, and cannot be dismissed as informative but irrelevant oddities. Culturally ingrained assumptions about what boys and girls like can stand in the way of alternative gender politics and representations.
I'm often reminded of Ito's research when confronted with searching for new things to read and watch. While I still consume a fair amount of US based media, I find myself obsessively stalking mangadroid and mysoju.com since they are more likely to feature stories about women. This doesn't mean this particular media mix is free of sexism (it isn't) or that it doesn't fall into some very familiar stereotypes (it does), but I can generally have a lot more options when looking for content about women, often created by women. Here are five things I wish Hollywood and the television industry would consider importing:
Female Characters That Are More Than Accessories
I think Big Bang Theory is funny, but it would be nice to see Penny have a larger role, rather than playing off the guys. (She proved she could carry an episode with her Warcraft obsession.) I watch How I Met Your Mother for Neil Patrick Harris, but find myself wanting to scream "Free Alyson Hannigan!" at the screen on the days when she and Robin have five lines total - if any at all. I'm just saying it would be nice to see women protagonists that aren't positioned as losers with sassy best friends (I'm looking at you, New Adventures of Old Christine.)
Before Viz's Shojo Beat magazine folded, I found myself drawn to two very different series. The first, Crimson Hero, was about a tomboyish girl with a love for volleyball. I'm not into sports stories, but Nobara, the main character was intriguing, apologetically athletic, and had a pretty one track focus. Did she have a love interest? Of course she did. But she also didn't hesitate to leave ass behind for intensive training to up her game.
She also works hard on keeping her squad together and challenging other teams - you can't help but want Nobara to win. It's strange to have to say this, but it is nice to see a woman character that exists for more than just a guy.
Another series I really liked was Sand Chronicles. This comic again had a love interest, but the first few books in the series are about reaching out from the darkness. The lead character, Ann, is forced to move to the small town of Shiname as her mother tries to pay off debt. The series pivotal moment is when her mother commits suicide, and Ann is left to cope.
While on its face, Sand Chronicles looks like an adolescent love story, the underlying themes that emerge from reading it are time, growing up, and changing ideas of love and fidelity. Ann develops many layers to her character as she ages, and it is refreshing to watch a character mature in this way.
Stories About Women In Different Walks of Life
To be honest, I almost gave up on manga when I was 23. Everything being imported revolved around high school and dramas that revolved around too many firsts to be interesting to someone who has been around the block a few times. Luckily, before I gave up, Tokyopop started serializing Tramps Like Us (better known as Kimi Wa Petto, or You're My Pet), my first introduction into josei manga.
And they caught me from the opening:
Sumire is a working woman who finds herself penalized for being tall, educated, and competent. She stressed out at work and knocks out her boss, while dealing with her sniveling ex-boyfriend. In typical manga style, impossible circumstances bring together her and a boy she names Momo and calls her pet - but the arc is really about being older and dating, loneliness, and our expectations.
It was adopted into a popular live action series. The series is a lot fluffier and goofier than the more melancholy book, but MatsuJun is in it, so I can't complain.
Stateside, Meryl Streep is single handedly pushing projects that show older women in various stages of life and love - other actresses are also trying to forge that path. However, it is interesting to see portraits of brooding, complicated women - and that image is so often erased in favor of a perpetually sunny/bitchy girlfriend or the decidedly uncomplicated love interest.
Women Who Work
I'll just put it out there: I am over the lifestyles of the rich and famous and I am sick of watching people on television have no work life and endless free time. After all, work lives enriched Murphy Brown and Mary Tyler Moore. It even got me to swallow my hatred of tThe Hills to check out a few episodes of The City - I don't care about the characters, but I did want to see what it is like to work at Elle. (And I should have known they were going to screw it up for TV.) Thanks to mangadroid, I started reading Spicy Pink, a josei manga about balancing relationships and work. Though the plot was a little too slow for my normal taste, I did enjoy reading about a woman who prioritized her career, made efforts to maintain friendships with other women, and spent a lot of time working in her late 20s. To me, that's real.
Anti-Make Over Narratives
Last year, one of my friends was really into the romantic comedy J-drama Hotaru No Hikari, and for good reason.
Hotaru works for a famous interior design company. It's a glamorous job but Hotaru's private life is totally the opposite of glamorous. She lives alone, and when she isn't working she's mostly lazing about her rented house in training wear. She's not interested in men. In fact, she isn't interested in anything. "I'd rather lay around than fool around," is her motto.
Hotaru is a beer swilling, belching heroine who completely disregards her coworker's admonishments against being " a dried fish woman" (read: all dried up at a young age). Interestingly, the story features an interesting twist on the standard love triangle - Hotaru actually likes her "perfect girl" opponent, and the dynamics of women competing for men are often discussed.
Are there still beauty and make over narratives in a lot of J-dramas? You know it! But there are a lot of dramas that allow the heroine to stay herself? There are.
NANA, in General
I often refer to manga-ka Ai Yazawa's popular franchise NANA, because it integrates so many elements of good story telling about women. The series deals with love, life, work, and fame, but bases the narrative in the friendship of Nana O. and Nana K. Each character has their own personality, and their own vulnerabilities. Fans of the stand-offish, chain-smoking, Vivienne Westwood-wearing future rockstar Nana O. can also find bits and pieces to relate to in the flightly, in-love-with-love, kawaii-cute Nana K. One of the reasons that NANA became so popular was that it is a non condescending look into the not-so-charmed lives of two twenty somethings out on their own. We know Hollywood is skeptical that two women can carry a movie - perhaps demonstrating the popularity of NANA will open up more room for these kinds of depictions.
(Note: I don't read enough Yuri and Yaoi to discuss what elements to import, and I am not sure there is enough of it transferring to live action to provide a template. However, if there is reader interest in representations of homosexuality in the Japanese media mix, please let me know, and I be happy to look into it for a future article.)