Disclaimer: this post was inspired by the amazing YouTube video by Under the Scope about the Monogatari series, and you should check it out. Also, Content Warning for some description of sexism and sexual assault, and some spoilers for Kill la Kill.
It’s felt like every day for the past few years, something terrible has happened that has gotten everyone talking about it and driven the wedge between us just a little bit deeper. Whether it’s global climate change, economic stagnation, or all the inequalities and injustices in the world, there is so much to be angry, outraged, and terrified about that it’s become overwhelming. With the world more polarized than ever, it feels like it’s hard just to have a polite conversation without some issue in politics, religion, or society at large starting a flame war.
Since we live in a media-driven society, these divisions have naturally started to appear in the ways we discuss the things we love – our books, movies, music and games. Everything from multi-part fantasy epics to fluffy pop songs get intensely analyzed and deconstructed online, over whether they represent certain groups of people fairly or exploit serious real-world issues for financial gain.
And while it’s definitely important to have these discussions, it’s easy to feel that this discussion of “problematic” media has gone a bit overboard in the last few years. A lot of people just don’t want to hear about it anymore and would rather just like what they like without having to worry about offending others. After all, it’s just a show, or a movie, or a song. It’s not that big of a deal, right?
Well, yes. And also no. Maybe. It depends. And it’s complicated.
I think the issue here is that a lot of our discussion of problematic media consists of knee-jerk reactions and hot takes which, by their very nature, lack introspection and nuance. This is understandable, to some extent, because of how our modern internet-driven media culture works. Controversy sells, after all, and it’s much easier to get that sweet, sweet website traffic by saying “Media X is/is not problematic, and therefore is great/terrible” instead of considering that all media, and people as a whole, are complex, multi-faceted creatures, each with our own strengths and weaknesses.
A piece of media can be problematic and still be good, or not problematic and be bad, and there are all sorts of layers in between this. And whether a work is considered offensive or not is greatly dependent on context: when and where it was made, the mindset of the creator(s), and the society and culture that is both creating and viewing the work has a lot to do in how it is perceived.
I feel like the best way to explain this is to talk about one of my problematic faves: the beautiful and bonkers Trigger anime Kill la Kill. For the uninitiated, Kill la Kill is a dystopian action/comedy/sci-fi series about a young girl named Ryuko Matoi, out for revenge for the murder of her father. Believing the tyrannical Satsuki Kiryuin, student council president and leader of the totalitarian Honnouji Academy, is the one responsible, she transfers to the school in an attempt to fight her way to the top and find the answers she seeks. It’s a fantastic anime with all the style and panache of a Tarantino flick, the absurd action and humor of classic Gainax anime FLCL and Gurren Lagann, and a surprising amount of depth and social commentary for those willing to look for it. I adore Kill la Kill and would put it in my top 10 anime ever. Or at least top 20.
There is one issue, though, and it’s pretty much impossible to ignore. When Ryuko and Satsuki right in Kill la Kill, they fight in incredibly revealing magical outfits that leave nothing to the imagination. Before each major battle in the series, there is an elaborate transformation sequence in which the girls are completely naked and the camera makes sweeping boob, butt, and crotch shots with all the subtlety of an 8-ton truck. Male supporting characters constantly make lewd comments about Ryuko and Satsuki when they fight, and even Ryuko’s dog (!) gets a nosebleed during a high-speed panty shot.
A lot of people consider this framing of its female characters to be incredibly objectifying, sexist, and creepy. To be honest, I kind of agree. Even though I love Kill la Kill, I can’t help but groan (or at best, awkwardly giggle) when I see all the lewd fanservice in this anime. I wouldn’t blame someone entirely for taking one look at Ryuko’s battle gear and dismissing Kill la Kill as fetishistic trash with no artistic merit whatsoever.
People have defended this, let’s say, stylistic choice by saying, for example, that the story is all about how women are perceived by society and their struggle to find power through the lens of the male gaze. I don’t buy that argument entirely, considering the director, writer, and most of the animation staff were men who had previously worked on other uncomfortably sexualized anime before. What redeems Kill la Kill in my eyes is how the story takes the classic Shonen fighting anime story – call to adventure, beat the bad guys, save the world – and frames it through interesting and dynamic female characters.
All the main characters in Kill la Kill are women, which is almost unheard of for the action genre. And they all have their own unique personalities, motivations, and character flaws, not to mention badass scissor swords and incredible fighting powers. Ryuko is not only fighting to find out who killed her dad; she is fighting against conformity, totalitarianism, hierarchical society, and the idea that clothing (or the lack thereof) needs to be perceived as inherently sexual in the first place. Also, it has best girl Mako, who constantly cheers Ryuko on and shows how empowering female relationships can really be. They’re even dating by the end of the story! Ryuko x Mako OTP
The point is that everything, even a series as seemingly dumb and pandering as Kill la Kill, can have a lot of depth and nuance that people miss on when they too focused on whether one specific element is problematic or not. But it also goes both ways. Something that may be acceptable for one person might be a deal-breaker for someone else, and neither side is any more or less valid than the other. It’s important to consider the experiences of everyone who is viewing a piece of media. If you’ve never been catcalled while walking down the street or had some creeper slide into your DMs asking for sexual favors, you might not have as much of an issue with the sexualized female characters of Kill la Kill as someone who has to deal with things like that on a regular basis.
There’s been a lot of talk about “cancel culture” lately, or the idea that if a piece of media or creator is offensive enough, it is “cancelled” – not given any more attention, deleted from our ever-expanding capitalistic media landscape. While I think this idea comes from good intentions, I don’t think canceling problematic media entirely is the right idea.
We have to have these discussions, because all media is flawed and problematic in some ways, and it’s important to talk about these flaws in a critical and objective manner. But if we simply cancel, ignore, or refuse to engage anything that anyone finds even slightly objectionable, then we would be stuck watching nothing but bland, lifeless pap that doesn’t break any new boundaries or say anything of importance. Ironically, that’s problematic too, in its own way. That’s not to say we shouldn’t call out media when it is offensive, or that we can never stop watching a show because of objectionable content, but that by avoiding that conversation entirely, we ironically make the situation even worse by refusing to discuss a large part of our cultural landscape.
This post has been a bit rambling and long-winded, but I guess what I’m saying is that too often, both sides of the “is this piece of media problematic” debate don’t dive deeply enough. People just make surface-level arguments that ignore others’ perspectives, and we just get endless shit-flinging arguments that don’t help anyone. There’s nothing wrong with you if you like something like Kill la Kill, nor is there anything wrong with you if you think the problematic elements are too much for you. Maybe we should all just chill out, drink some herbal tea, and acknowledge that everyone and everything has its own strong points and flaws, and only by acknowledging both can we come to a better understanding of our art and ourselves.
Nah, that won’t drive those clicks. More hot takes!
With a rebel group called “Nudist Beach” how could I possibly not like Kill la Kill?
The lolicon and shoutacon stuff in certain anime does bug me. Elementary and middle schoolers ought not be used as objects of sexual desire. So does the trope that it is okay to force yourself on someone because you really like them.
I try to shrug it off. It is just flickering images on an LED screen, not a guide for living a virtuous life. No children were harmed in the making of this anime. They are just aiming for a particular demographic.
Unfortunately it reflects a Japanese culture where bullying, sexual assault and sexualization of young children are far more acceptable than here.
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Yeah that kind of stuff bothers me too. Like I really liked Made in Abyss for the worldbuilding and gorgeous animation but some of the stuff in it, I just couldn’t watch because it was so disgusting to me. I’m not really an expert on Japanese culture and I don’t want to pigeonhole an entire country but it does seem to come up quite often in anime. But then you hear all the stories of famous people in the news who get in trouble for sexually harassing underage girls (the whole Drake scandal is the first one that came to mind for me) so it’s definitely not something exclusive to Japan either… I don’t know, it’s just creepy and gross and I wish people would stop acting like that >_<
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