Being an anime fan who happens to be a Black woman can be awkward as hell. There are always highs and lows, such as the joy I feel when my OTP (one true pairing) officially gets together in my favorite anime, the periods of mourning I experience when my favorite character dies in a show that was recommended to me on AnimeList.com, and the tears and used tissues that appeared when I finally finished the last episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. But, there are a LOT of awkward lows that make me cringe from time to time.
Don’t get me wrong, I will forever and always adore Japanese animation. It is a revolutionary and groundbreaking industry. I have loved anime ever since I first watched Sailor Moon. I automatically related to her because despite the fact that she was a thin, pale-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde character, I understood her fears and her infinite love for food and sleep. But this didn’t keep me from feeling hella awkward when I watched innocent civilians’ skin turn brown––not zombie green or ghostly grey but BROWN––to symbolize them being possessed by “Dark Power” in Sailor Moon R. As I re-watch the series today, I try to make excuses in my head, saying, “Well, it’s Western media’s fault,” or “Maybe it’s just a coincidence.”
Grocery Shoppers after they became possessed with “Dark power”
(Sailor Moon R, Episode 66)
It’s not a coincidence. It wasn’t a coincidence that Mr. Popo, the “caretaker” of Kami in DragonBall Z, looked awfully similar to Black-faced, red-and-thick-lipped depictions of Black people from back in the day, and neither is the gradual skin-lightening Sailor Pluto has experienced over the years. It’s a slap in the face to see aspects of you, your skin and your thicker lips placed on characters to signify evil, stupidity, or low class, or to realize it’s an aspect that has been “edited out” over time. As a woman, the slaps come more often, only because Black people don’t appear in anime too often. It’s not uncommon to see posters of your favorite female characters depicted as sexual objects and your favorite male characters drawn in postures of power. It sucks. And it is so awkward.
Left: Mr. Popo of Dragonball Z
Right: A common depiction of Black people in the media in the early 1900s
Left: Sailor Pluto in the Sailor Moon manga (1993)
Right: Sailor Pluto in the Sailor Moon Anime (1995)
These slaps in the face have not stopped me from enjoyed anime or manga, but the more “woke” you become, the more you begin to think and notice. I’ve noticed that I can’t comfortably go on online anime forums without feeling nervous that I’ll happen to see a racist slur or joke while scrolling down. I’ve noticed the sense of relief I feel when a character is Black and isn’t just a loud, big, Black man with an afro, which is the usual trope. I notice when female characters are written only to serve as the “cute, big-boobed girl the protagonist will fall in love with.” I’ve also noticed the ignorance within our community of Otakus (anime and manga fans) when it comes to confronting issues of race and sexism in anime, and some of us need to WAKE THE FUCK UP!
I had encountered cyber-sexism and racism from anime and manga fandoms for years, but the first time I faced this ignorance in real life was during the first of many train-wreck discussions on Blackface in Emerson’s Anime Club’s Facebook group. I’m not going to call anyone out or name names, because if the shoe fits, it fits, and it’s not my job to help you try it on. This discussion was started by the club’s advisor, and I appreciated her initiating the discussion of this topic, it’s definitely a topic that needs to be addressed. Well, let’s say the discussion became a way for me to know who to avoid during the rest of my time here at Emerson.
As we discussed a white cosplayer who painted her skin brown to cosplay Michonne from The Walking Dead, I thought most people would be smart enough to realize it wasn’t right. I thought wrong. I watched the comment section grow with more and more comments defending the cosplayer, saying, “The cosplayer is trying to be more true to the character,” and “She’s trying to be more authentic.” It was so absurd and very alienating as the only Black person in the club at the time. I couldn’t help but fear that one of these people would show in a cosplay with Blackface. They all seemed so down for it.
Unfortunately, the absurdity continued with three more discussions on whether Blackface is appropriate in cosplay and with discussions during meetings that would turn into people arguing on whether a usage of fan-service (displaying certain camera cuts, usually showing off a female character’s cleavage, in order to please fans) was cute or sexist (it was definitely sexist, as always). These discussions—or games of “Let’s find out who is problematic as hell!”—were prompted by an attempt to understand different genres and perspectives in anime, no matter how awful and demeaning they were, especially to women. It was careless, and I feel as though we are all guilty of carelessness in anime fandoms. We fall in love with a show, but get so wrapped in that love that we can’t see that it’s actually offensive and harmful to certain communities. It’s like having to let go of eating McDonald’s all over again.
Now, I’m not trying to say I always have an awkward time around people in the anime community, because that’s not true. It only is half of the time! I love being a part of a passionate community that is just as obsessive as I am, excluding the bad eggs. There are so many people who have basic human empathy, who know that Blackface is not a cool thing to do and who can look at their favorite anime and say, “Yes, that was actually kind of sexist.” The thing is, there just aren’t enough of them––or enough people willing to attempt to understand another person’s point of view. Admitting your fave is problematic is awkward, I know that struggle very well (*cough* Azealia Banks *cough cough*), but I find no solace in loving something that ridicules or disenfranchises others.
It’s going to take a lot more than me writing a blog post on how awkward it is to be a female Otaku of color to change the way that people of color, our cultures, and women as a whole are represented in anime. There will continue to be cringe-worthy moments, there will still be problematic fans who don’t want to understand different perspectives, and there will be shows that I will forever blacklist because they are so damn offensive, but trust me, there are a lot of highs that come with the territory. One of them is the absolute joy I feel when I pass by a cosplayer of color who said “Fuck it”, and cosplayed a character who is depicted as pale-skinned. The pride I feel when discovering anime that gives power and dignity to its female characters without stripping it away from them as a plot device. And it’s always a plus when a darker-skinned character isn’t written to be unintelligent because of their skin color.
Will I always feel awkward speaking up against the many, MANY people who think Blackface in cosplay means you’re being “authentic”?
Will I feel awkward when realizing that cool-seeming show Magi is basically a latent example of cultural appropriation?
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic
Will it be awkward when I see over-sexualized body pillows of resident badass Ryuko Matoi at Anime Cons?
Me, reacting to the sexist imagery at Anime Cons.
YEAH. ALWAYS. But the awkwardness will never make me silent. And hopefully, my lack of silence will encourage other fans of anime to understand that when it comes to having an inclusive community that promotes the art form to progress, we still have a long way to go.
Ashley Dixon is currently a Sophomore BA Theatre Studies: Acting candidate at Emerson College. She loves video games, anime, diversity, and inclusion.