Do Sexy Cartoons, Like Anime, Fuel Unhealthy Body Image Issues?

Anime girls with swords. Silentfly/ Shutterstock.com

Images from Japanese anime and manga often show women in revealing clothing. However, cultural differences show the likelihood of these images reflecting back on the fan base in the form of body consciousness to be low.

A quick Google image search of the term “female anime and manga” will show the searcher a countless amount of colorful characters. Depending on the perspective, some may see girls dressed in schoolgirl-style outfits, complete with short skirt uniforms, and think of the images as hypersexualized. Others may see a string of empowered, strong female characters.

The vastness of these pages is as vast as the types of anime and manga that are available to the characters’ huge audience, not just in Japan, but on an international scale. Without context, it is easy to snap judgement at what these images mean or how they affect body perceptions.

An upcoming documentary titled “The Illusionists” will explore the effect of “ideal body type” and attempt to break down what these sexual and often Western images will do in regard to body commodification within mass media.

“Japanese women are under incredible pressure to have an ideal body just like top models and manga characters,” one of the interviewees identified in the trailer as from Tokyo, Japan, says. “The problem is that the desire to look this way doesn’t coming from the women themselves, it’s often imposed by society and mass media.”

In an increasing globalized world, the impact of the mass media grows on a daily basis, flooding television, movies and magazines with images of “perfection.” However, the world of anime and manga is so diverse, that using its imagery as a general explanation for what seems like the hypersexualization of the female body would not be factual.

According to author of “Japanamerica” and contributing writer for The New Yorker and The Japan Times Roland Kelts, what’s known as modern manga became popular beginning in the post-WWII era, however, can trace roots back to the nineteenth century.

The first traces of manga containing darker contexted, including some explicitly sexually themed content became visible in Japan in the 60s and 70s, according to Kelts. The Gekiga Movement, coined by pioneer and recently deceased manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, depicts a type of graphic content that was prohibited in the United States at this time by The Comics Code enacted in the 1950s, banning sexual, violent and others forms of content in comics.

Today, there are many genres of anime and manga, often crisscrossing relative to the series. Anime and manga series cast a wide net in regard to theme, ranging from humor and romance to historical fiction and martial arts.

Other genres include “Shonen” manga and anime, marketed mainly toward boys and feature a male protagonist, while “shojo” is geared toward a female audience and features a female protagonist, according to Anime News Network. Another genre, “Boys Love,” typically features same-sex male couples, following their relationships and is written almost exclusively by female writers mainly for a female audience.

“More recently, what’s called “moe” emerged in the 1990s featuring eroticized, impossibly ‘cute’ females of an uncertain age,” Kelts says in an email. ”It was generally considered an amalgam of the lolicon (lolita consciousness) movement and the older bishoujo (beautiful girl) aesthetics of manga art.”

According to Kelts, moe is a cross between sexy and cute, loosely translating to “budding” and relating to either a flower or young girl.

“The High School Girl” or “Girl’s High” genre, is another subgenre that branches off from a larger group titled “Slice of Life,” which examines day-to-day life and experiences of individuals or groups, and may have a coming of age element to its plot. A common visual seen through this genre is the “school girl” archetype.

The common high school girl character may be wearing a very short skirt, a sign which point to female objectification coming from an American point of view. However, this image is an example of moe, intended to be “kawaii,” or cute, rather than sexualized.

“Hyakko,” a manga-turned-anime series which can be classified as a humorous high school girl subgenre, is an example of this. Hyakko follows a unique group of high school girls attending a boarding school and their daily, often silly and uncommon, adventures. The four main characters have immersive back stories and uniquely identifiable personality traits.

Hyakko is an example of an anime or manga series that shows some amount of gratuitous “panty shots,” showing a character’s undergarment with humorous intentions rather than sexual, often somewhat embarrassing the character that has had their garment shown and intended as fanservice, according to Anime News Network.

“There’s a couple distinctions in the U.S. and Japan,” Professor of Japanese Culture and Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ian Condry says.

“They’re more likely to think it’s not a big deal when, for example, in a comic book or manga and anime you see elementary school girls’ panties. That can be a cute thing, not a sexualized thing.”

Although from an American perspective this type of expression can be taboo, this fan service is intended to be cute and funny, rather than racy and sexual.

Within the vast world of anime and manga is also a large variety of genres made specifically for adult audiences, carrying themes like hard violence, mature societal themes and sex. One series titled “Ghost in the Shell,” ecompasses some of these themes, and, because of that, is recommended for mature audiences and not children.

Similarly, there are many cartoons in American culture, for example “South Park,” “Daria” and “Archer,” which explore adult themes, as well, and are intended only for adult audiences.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are some benefits to children consuming media in general, including the implementation of manners, sharing and cooperation, according to its website. However, the organization lists potential damages, as well.

“Many younger children cannot discriminate between what they see and what is real,” it’s website says. “Research has shown primary negative health effects on violence and aggressive behavior; sexuality; academic performance; body concept and self-image; nutrition, dieting, and obesity; and substance use and abuse patterns.”

Anime girl. Silentfly/ Shutterstock.com

Anime girl. Silentfly/ Shutterstock.com

This is particularly why anime and manga similar to “Ghost in the Shell” and American cartoons like “South Park” are not recommended for children. While children are more susceptible to be influenced by media images, adults tend to have a higher understanding that media images oftentimes do not reflect reality.

Although the elements, either hidden or more upfront, of sexualization in content for teens and children both in manga and anime and American content exist, it is not the main theme. For example, both the manga-turned-anime series “Sailor Moon” and Disney’s smash hit “Frozen” both exhibit strong, independent female protagonists and potential positive role models to young girls.

Frozen’s main character, Elsa, struggles with power, particularly her own ability to control ice and snow, eventually liberating herself and showing a great degree of self acceptance. Sailor Moon is another hugely popular female character worldwide from the magical girl manga genre, entrusted to save the world through adventures with her fellow “soldiers” Sailor Venus, Sailor Mars, Sailor Venus and Sailor Mercury.

According to Casey Brienza, a lecturer in publishing and digital media at City University London, both Sailor Moon and Elsa show strong female characters and rather than make young girls or women feel body conscious or notice a sense of oversexualization, feel a sense of empowerment, instead.

“If you look at characters like ‘The Little Mermaid vs. Elsa in ‘Frozen,’ she’s a completely different character in terms of the way she’s depicted,” Brienza says of Elsa. “And so the sort of arc of her story, she doesn’t end up with a guy at the end. She’s shown as being all-powerful. Showing the woman as the most powerful character in a cartoon is something that was happening in the 90s with Sailor Moon but not with American cartoons.”

As for manga and anime’s effect on body image for girls and women, Brienza believes that’s a stretch. Photography and the manipulation of an actual human body, according to Brienza, can be more deceptive than something as implicitly unreal as a cartoon drawing.

“I think photography in this case is much more insidious,” Brienza says. “We can look at it and we can’t distinguish it from reality even when it can essentially be a photoshopped drawing. It’s presented as representations whereas cartoons are not presented as representational. They’re presented as a drawing, something that is emphatically not real.”

Condry suggests children be given more credibility as to what they can distinguish as a cartoon, versus what images are real and attainable.

“My sense of that is that children, it’s true, very much take their cues from the world around them and I tend to think that is a little more than what they read in a comic book,” Condry says. “Pop singers, TV stars, movie stars, those kind of people are give a lot a credit by society as people to look up to and children are clued into what adults think are important.”

“We have to be careful in how we gauge the gullibility of children,” he says.