This post explores Masculine: Biology and the Masculine Trope in Anime, my Otaku Warriors for Liberty and Self Respect subject for today.
(And it just happens to be my birthday today.)
We are a group of otaku bloggers who promotes acceptance of all individuals regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and disability. We emphasize the importance of respect, kindness, and tolerance to every human being.
Previously we heard from Megan Peoples (Nerd Rambles) on the subject of masculinity and the cartoon hero Tintin. Waiting on deck we have Scott (Mechanical Anime Reviews) on the subject of how masculinity relates to Chihayafuru.
See that Y chromosome? It – and the biological impact it has on a body – is the only certain and universal definition of masculinity. Even then, its influence can be modified by epigenetic influences in utero and medical intervention after birth. The resulting phenotypical presentation can be modified in small ways by learning and environmental factors. But that Y chromosome is still there, fighting to assert itself.
Every other definition falls short. Personality traits, physical appearance, muscular strength, all are based on small statistical differences of overlapping Bell curves caused by Mr. Y. “Masculine” is a 5½ inch increase in the median height achieved by a male over a statistically average female, yet the curves overlap to the point where the shared area is much larger than the unshared area.
Normal testosterone levels in men are around 280 to 1,100 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL). Women secrete much lower amounts, with normal levels considered to be between 15 and 70 ng/dL. The level of hormones produced in the body varies each day and throughout the day. (Medical News Today)
We can honestly say that high levels of testosterone are exclusively masculine in almost all people. There will always be exceptions. (A good scientist would never say the tail of the curve is “abnormal”. It is still part of the curve.)
There will be some traits where the overlap is almost total. There will be other traits where the overlap is far smaller. An example might be the ratio of upper-body strength to lower body strength. For a statistically average woman, her lower body strength will be 90% of a statistically average male’s and her upper body strength will be 60% of a male’s. OTOH, she is likely to be more agile. It is an advantage of having a lower center of gravity.
That pesky Y chromosome modifies an otherwise female body by turning on and off other genes in utero, most notably testosterone. A penis is universally considered a sign of masculinity. It is really just an extremely enlarged and modified clitoris. Testicles are ovaries that took a different path. Men have nipples but they are largely useless (aside from being pleasure toys). Given the right hormones, though, he can nurse a baby. There is still a tiny teste in every ovary and if you knock out the correct gene, (FOXL2), it starts cranking out large quantities of testosterone.
In a word determined to pigeonhole us into narrow and divisive gender categories, we are far more alike than most people imagine.
Mr. Y gives men their (statistically) more massive musculature, deeper voice and large Adam’s apple and facilitates body hair growth. Yet some guys have almost no body hair and some women have substantial amounts. (Remember those overlapping bell curves?) It shapes the pelvic region and makes bones thicker, muscles more massive. (Ironically male pattern baldness, often thought of as a very masculine trait, is transmitted by the X chromosome. Go figure.)
It doesn’t necessarily assign the self-identified gender or sexual preference. It certainly assists but other factors are at work as well. We don’t fully understand it yet.
The Y chromosome is itself a modified X. Of the 200 genes on the Y, many of them are shared by the X. Sexual reproduction may go back a billion years but the Y still contains a legacy of vital X genes that increases the level of some polypeptides the X produces.
Men are highly modified women and it is all that Y chromosome’s fault.
Women have the potential for great physical strength as well. As the social conventions shift like the sand beneath our feet, the physically powerful woman is coming into her own. It is a beautiful thing to see muscles rippling across a feminine physique.
We are in a world where that 60% upper body strength is more than enough to do almost any task. Unless you are certain types of professional athletes or must fight off predators and competitors, all that extra muscle is purely aesthetic – a peacock’s feathers. It was only a social convention that women couldn’t do the strenuous things a man could. Like free soloing on sheer rock faces.
Culturally, we can see that masculinity and femininity are defined by whatever a large majority within that culture thinks it is. That was part of a judgemental past where failure to conform to a limited number of options led to ostracism or worse. In our digital age where national culture seems to be shattering into many different subcultures ultimately no single definition suffices.
Ultimately I hope and believe that we are evolving to a condition where the two ideas are user-defined. It is whatever the person thinking about the topic thinks it is. You’ll find a million different definitions out there. Unfortunately, many people will declare that they have the truth (religion, ideology) and that people who disagree are either misinformed or an outright enemy.
Except as a sperm donor and a sex toy is there anything special about being biologically male? I’m about to go out on a limb here and say straight men really are fundamentally different from straight women, biologically, phenotypically, pheromonally, and psychologically in a probabilistic sense. Many of the Bell curves of the genetic X & Y genders do not overlap much due to inherent biological reasons. This facilitates generally different behavioral responses to the same situation. (There are feminists who would vehemently deny this. They will argue, very unconvincingly IMHO, that it is all environment.)
That doesn’t mean that gays and transgendered can’t lay claim to the mantle of masculine or feminine – or both or neither – as they desire. The cultural biases on this are as changeable as the wind and subjectively defined by the user.
How does anime feed into all this? Very poorly. The tropes of masculinity are as shallow as any others. Trope usually = stereotype = total lack of nuance. There are a lot of male characters in anime to choose from. I break them down like this according to how masculinity is handled.
Given the predilection for anime for underage protagonists, many of these are either supporting characters or villains. He is often big and strong and fast. Lucky for us, there are a few examples of them floating around right now. All Might could be an option here. I’d put him in the subcategory of the happy warrior. I think Goblin Slayer is a more interesting one, the damaged warrior.
Goblin Slayer also represents the Stoic philosophy. In Japan, it would probably be called “Gaman“. If he were a Fin, they would call it Sisu. Gobie’s speech would be best described as Laconic, his lifestyle, Spartan. Stoicism has always been considered part of the masculine trope. (On the feminine side of stoicism, we see Erza of Fairy Tail.)
The stoic suffers hardship with equanimity and is able to deal with pain levels by simply accepting it and getting on with what needs to be done. If he has a commanding presence, he may lack interest in using it unless it is as a military commander.
Even though the founders of the Stoic philosophy were ancient philosophers searching for ways to live the virtuous life, the stoic hero in anime usually doesn’t think deeply. His thoughts are usually elemental in nature, not bothering with high philosophy but instead with the rudimentary needs to stay alive and fight his opponents. Still, there is intelligence there as he recognizes that strategy and tactics will carry the day when raw speed and power cannot. He probably understands the principles of Sun Tzu without ever having read the book. This is all very masculine stuff.
Goblin Slayer is immediately familiar as the strong, silent type. Any spec ops type would
know and respect him immediately. He has spent a lifetime honing his lethal skills and is entirely focused on doing the job at hand. You can see him as the hard-boiled detective, the ninja or samurai, the assassin, and the gunslinger. He’s John Wayne, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen in so many of their roles. The James Bond variant is more happy warrior-ish, the Golgo 13 variant is much less so.
Gobie didn’t study the works of the stoic philosophers, grow up in a warrior clan or go thru boot camp. He got this way via trauma, PTSD. He was too young to protect what he loved and had to hide helplessly as he saw horrible things happen. He felt he failed his responsibility as a man – even though he was still a child. He can’t allow others to get close because his is a dangerous life and they may well die. (The feminine version of this is Nagi from Boogiepop.) Obsession became a fast track to the top of his profession. Because he is so damaged, normal friendship, romance, and possibly even normal sexual function are unavailable to him.
Only in the final episode of the season do we start to see him discard the armor around his heart and it took a young girl’s faith to do it. There yet may be hope for him.
His fate? You can’t be in your prime forever. Getting killed on the job is an occupational hazard. Quit while he is ahead and teach the next generation? Maybe one last big job and then retire? (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven) Or go out in a blaze of glory? (John Wayne, The Shootist)
This is shounen writ large. There are probably hundreds of protagonists of this ilk. In the American western, this character is known as “The Kid“. The kid is always smaller than his adversaries. He is lightning fast. He is world-class gymnast agile. He may get pounded into fudge but always finds reserves to call up. The Kid can just be a junior gunslinger or he can have something positive motivating him. Most often in shounen anime, it is the memory of friends and loved ones who depend on him.
The Kid is “masculine” in a kind of boyish way. His masculinity has not fully developed, so he isn’t as threatening. (Same reason teenage girls are often into boy bands.) The uber-masculinity of the mature adult hero (i.e. Dirty Harry) is frightening to all but the boldest of girls. Softer features and a smoother body are preferable.
The Kid regularly encounters inferior versions of The Mighty Man and trounces them. When he fights the real thing, at the very least it becomes an epic struggle for survival.
In current culture-speak, this one can be thought a little more in touch with his “feminine” side. His power comes from relationships and dreams. There may be a rivalry out there that eggs him on. He could be just a stone-cold killer but usually isn’t. Sojiro Seta (Rurouni Kenshin) is an example of a young stone-cold killer created by trauma.
When (and if) he grows up he wants to become a Mighty Man of some sort. In Goblin Slayer the boy is traumatized into it. Other exemplars like Naruto, Deku (MHA) and Yahiko (Rurouni Kenshin) have it as a positive life goal. Tenchi (Tenchi Muyo!) kind of stumbles into it.
Except for being gay and having a bit more nuance, from my POV, Yuri (Yuri on Ice) is almost indistinguishable from his straight brethren in sports shounen. He’s “The Kid” of the skating rink.
The Gentle Empath
I decided to break out a very special kind of masculinity category.
Not all versions of masculinity involve physical power, being hard-bitten, crushing the opposition, aloofness, and stoicism. I call this “empathic” masculinity. Natsume (Natsume’s Book of Friends) is one example. Irina of I Drink and Watch Anime is probably the world’s foremost expert on Natsume’s brand of masculinity.
Ginko (Mushishi) is a more grown-up version. Cross him with a Mighty Man and you’d get Kenshin Himura (Rurouni Kenshin) I think the difference is an extra double dose of empathy. In American cinema, this brings to mind Robert Redford. It also helps not to be a natural fighter so nonviolent means naturally come to mind first – though you may need a large cat to protect you.
The “Trap” Trope…
It’s just a trope with minimal resemblance to reality. The boy who effortlessly and naturally has such feminine features that other boys look at him as a girl. A shortcut for saying it is OK for boys to be attracted (and attractive) to other boys. Even the hetero MC is attracted (or fooled) so the vicariously attracted viewer doesn’t have to feel “gay” about desiring the trap.
There were times in the past where among the wealthy and the royal it was not uncommon to turn their young boys into anime-style traps. Little Lord Fauntleroy, a novel of the late 1800s and made into at least four movies over 66 years, is a fictional example of a real fashion.
I have subbed in local schools for grades K-12 for years and I have never seen an adolescent boy who would qualify as an anime variety trap. It just isn’t culturally accepted here and today to feminize a boy’s appearance that way. (I have seen a couple of girls who could be mistaken for boys. Tomboys are much more acceptable today.)
If you want to see some good anime with the traditional trap trope, Steins Gate, Oregairu, Sailor Moon SuperS, Baka to Test, and H2O: Footprints in the Sand will offer an interesting variety.
And as boys get older and hit puberty, feminine visual traits disappear to be replaced with “boyish good looks”. The features coarsen, the Adam’s apple pops out, and peach fuzz sets in where beard will follow. The IRL “trap” is a rare person and it takes effort to accomplish the look (Dil in The Crying Game.) In anime it is effortless.
It is possible to make an older boy look like a girl with an effort. That is the subject of many anime, such as Himegoto (Secret Princess).
At least the trap trope generally doesn’t get ridiculed or mistreated in anime. The character is treated well. In real life? Maybe not so happy in much of the world.
Transgendered people can be found in anime. They have nothing in common with the trap trope. They are fairly uncommon.
However, most anime doesn’t tackle gender identity issues on a serious level in any way. Perhaps the best is Wandering Son with Yoshino Takatsuki and Nitori Shuichi as children whose psychological gender does not match their biology.
Wandering Son goes where very few media offerings are willing to go. Instead of just sticking in a trap trope for yucks and helping out boys who are attractive and/or attracted to each other, it explored the world of a pair of transgender children, a boy who identifies as a girl and vice versa. We can see the harm rigid cultural definitions of masculine and feminine can result in.
The Pretty Boy trope.
Pretty boys in anime may be metrosexuals. The one thing they all have in common in anime is their great features and usually being well dressed and perfectly coiffed. Stars or roses or rainbows may pop up when they cast their winsome smile one’s way. The market for “boyish good looks” in cinema is also quite strong. Think about Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. They made it big because they looked boyish but acted masculine.
A Pretty Boy is not necessarily gay nor is he afraid to dust it up. He could even qualify for Mighty Man status if he is strong enough. He is just handsome in the extreme. He knows it, deliberately enhances it, and counts on it as an asset.
Loke (celestial mage) from Fairy Tail is one example. For that matter, every male in the Blue Pegasus Magic Guild is a Pretty Boy. (Except for the guild master, Bob. He’s a wanna-be Pretty Boy who became very powerful but not at all pretty.) Legolas in The LOTR is an awesomely powerful Pretty Boy.
Most Harem Protagonists…
Are utterly bland and uninteresting males who somehow end up surrounded by beautiful girls/women – usually an assortment of them from a wide range of ages, and origins. The whole point of harems is to allow your average dweeb to picture themselves in the center. The harem hero often doesn’t even have a sex drive or he is too worried to actually do anything with it. This allows our vicarious viewer to snicker at the ineptness of the harem king, thinking of all the wild sex they’d have.
The masculinity here? It is often in the viewer’s head. The viewer knows exactly what he’d be doing with all those girls throwing themselves at him. Some harem kings show a romantic interest in a favorite but somehow never say goodbye to the rest. Almost all anime harem kings like and love their harems and will fight any odds in an attempt to protect them. That kind of protectiveness is still a form of masculinity but as far as sexuality goes, the appeal is to the fantasy of the viewer.
A harem king who has to fight a lot can grow up to be a Mighty Man – if he survives.
Some harem kings do show their masculinity in a sexual way and I find them far more interesting for it. (Just drooling over boobies isn’t much of a sexual goal in life.) Yuuji Kazami from Fruit of Grisaia beds all kinds of beautiful women (including even his sister) but they are all adults at the time. He never touches any of the harem of girls he’s actually living with, even though some of them would clearly welcome it. Finally, an anime where the hero’s restraint doesn’t make him look like he’s testosterone deficient but rather like a full-fledged man with a useful moral compass.
Koyomi Araragi in Monogatari is another harem king who has a clear sexuality and even has an arc of growing maturity. His interactions with Mayoi Hachikuji, Nadeko Sengoku, and his two younger sisters are more than a bit creepy and shows his barely controlled lust for younger girls. This is both the “lolicon” and “siscon” variant tropes of masculinity. It is not pedophilia, but he definitely didn’t worry about their age. He also loved girls near his own age (Hitagi, Tsubasa, Suruga, et al) but wasn’t secure enough around them to make his move. Hitagi made her move on him first and left her main competitor, Tsubabsa Hanekawa eating dust (and getting very catty from lust and regret).
It is his interaction with Hitagi Senjougahara, herself a badly damaged girl, as a friend and later as a lover that eventually matures him from an insecure adolescent into manhood.
Shinji Ikari – Evangelion
Even in him, there are traces of masculinity but they are so bludgeoned into submission by crippling insecurity, cowardice, fear, and a few other very unmasculine terms, that they rarely come to the forefront. It is not unrealistic to consider him as having been browbeaten into mental illness by his manipulative and domineering father. He would have been far better off if his mother were single.
I have to admit the other adults playing pinball with his life weren’t a lot better. He’s damaged goods. He needed therapy and understanding in the worst possible way, not military discipline. You don’t get pissed off at damaged goods, you try to fix them or you get someone else.
Living with a beautiful female commander (Misato) and a beautiful tsundere female pilot his age (Asuka) and working with yet another beautiful kuudere pilot his age (Rei), he doesn’t act neutered. He is extremely horny but acts like he’s afraid any masculine behavior would instantly result in a TASERing.
The best he can manage is masturbating over Asuka’s apparently unconscious body in the hospital. Actually, she was conscious thru the whole thing but unable to move. (We learn that later in Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.) Way to go chump, you even blew that.
This carries over to his combat in the EVA unit. He’s either frozen by indecision into immobility, scared shitless and wanting to flee, or flying off into an emotional berserker rage and doing everything wrong. He can’t successfully model desirable masculine or feminine tropes.
Hiro in Darling in the Franxx has the odor of this character type about him but it never got so bad I was cheering for him to die already.
The Sexual Psychopath
Let’s fly to the opposite end of the spectrum.
The anime Kite takes everything that is evil in the masculine trope, expands it to a psychotic level, and puts it front and center. (I discussed this in my OWLS Grotesque post.) We have a crooked cop. Not just crooked but a complete psychopath. He murders a young girl’s family, then takes her on as his foster child. He trains her to be a world-class assassin, seduces, and rapes her. Then, using revenge on her parent’s killers as her motive, he sends her out on jobs for which he makes a tidy sum of money.
His friend is also a psychopath. He prefers to kidnap girls, tie and gag them and then rape them. When he is done he slits their throats. The version most will see is heavily edited, yet still trivializes Goblin Slayer in shock value. The uncensored version is completely explicit about everything, down to the genitalia.
There are people who think this is the natural result of uninhibited masculinity. That somehow in their hearts all strongly masculine men want to be free to rape, control, and discard women. That somehow the scenes of abuse in shows like Kite or Goblin Slayer are just sexy entertainment for men, not representations of ultimate evil. I think “they” are not thinking very clearly. This is an anime about the worst-case scenario should the extremely rare sexual psychopath acquire absolute power without any accountability.
If this trope were to raise anything in a typical male it would be anger, sadness, and the protective instinct. Goblin Slayer is about how a boy/man reacts to overwhelming, deeply damaging evil. It isn’t about the joys of goblin life. Kite is a tragedy about how a pair of young people try to rise above the vilest evil imaginable. The sexual assault scenes in Perfect Blue are horrific because that’s what sexual assault is. Horrific. You have to be extremely obsessed to think showing the evil makes it somehow less evil.
Anime is still just drawn pictures flashing on a screen.
On a biological level, masculinity is whatever your Y chromosome does to make a male different from a female.
On a cultural level, whatever the media shows you is a mirror of what most people think of as masculine. The managers of media venues are cowards. As long as they can recycle a proven trope they will do so, endlessly, instead of testing an unproven one. Use a shallow, simple one rather than put the money and time into a nuanced and complex condition. We have slowly evolved from John Wayne to Idris Elba over the decades but in terms of what the human herd thinks of as masculinity, not much has changed.
Anime is unique in this regard in that lower production costs and greater directorial control of content allow us to see some unique perspectives. Anime is taken very seriously in Japan while animation in the US is forced into a bland and child-oriented presentation. Anime fans are more open-minded and don’t vapor-lock at seeing different concepts of masculinity presented. Yuri on Ice can be a fabulous success in anime whereas Universal Studios wouldn’t have a clue how to handle it.
Everyone’s definition of masculinity (and femininity) is – and ought to be – a subjective and personal thing. All too often we accept the cultural definition out of laziness or a desire to conform or belief in dogma. Too many of us then treat that subjective, emotion-filled definition as though it were scientific truth and religious gospel.
If masculinity and femininity didn’t have deep roots in biology, I often think we’d be better off without the concepts.