The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Literature


A review of The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Literature, by Kathryn Hemmann

The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Literature, written by Kathryn Hemmann, is an ambitious feminist work, as manifested in her bold word choice in the title itself: “contemporary Japanese literature.” This dissertation troubles widely accepted notions of literature and engages crime fiction, anime, manga, yaoi dōjinshi (self-published comics on yaoi), and online otaku culture. Thus expanding the category of Japanese literature, Hemmann argues that a female gaze enacts a “resistant reading” that intervenes in male-dominated literary discourses and empowers women. Building upon the satiric idea of “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective,” developed in fandom lore surrounding the American fantasy writer Anne Rice (1941-), to counter “correct” interpretations ascribed to “authorial intent” (pp. 2-3), Hemmann strategically mobilizes that which she calls the “wrong perspective” and with it investigates issues such as marriage, divorce, prostitution, tentacle porn, rape, yaoi, fujoshi (rotten women), makeinu (loser dogs), aging, gendered employment practices, the low birthrate, and violence against women’s bodies. In so doing, she recognizes female audiences and creators “claim[ing] agency over texts” (p. 3).

Chapter 1 is theoretically charged. Hemmann, first of all, defines the idea of the “female gaze” as a tool to disrupt the established asymmetrical power dynamics between men and women,  allowing women “to become the heroines of their own stories” who “no longer serve as passive victims or the mere objects of legal and political discourses” (p. 5). She, in order to define it, revisits Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze,” which originates from “a phallocentric psychoanalytic model” (p. 5). Hemmann is well aware that Mulvey’s concept has been critiqued for its essentializing nature by philosophers such as Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler, and she carefully and astutely employs the concept, arguing that female characters, who can exercise narrative privileges, along with creators and audiences, will “turn a female gaze on phallocentric discourses and economies of desire,” situating the female gaze “at multiple levels of the text” (p. 5).

Each level, Hemmann argues, inspires and adds possibilities to diverse textuality. In this way, the female gaze complicates the texts and activates an interventionist feminist reading from the aforementioned “wrong perspective.” Moreover, tracing European and American feminist theorists such as Hélène Cixous, Elaine Showalter, and Joanna Russ, Hemmann comparatively constellates feminist critics of Japanese literature, including Victoria Vernon, Nina Cornyetz, Sharalyn Orbaugh, and Atsuko Sasaki, precisely those who critically examine sexist representations of women in Japanese literature and culture. Hemmann then positions her own inquiry within this genealogy of feminist Japanese literary critics in order to open new avenues and empower women who are constrained by various social, political, and economic factors.

In Chapter 2, Hemmann analyzes Kirino Natsuo’s (1951- ) murder mystery novels, Real World (2003) and Grotesque (2003), revealing the social structure that traps Japanese women in a cycle of “imposed misogyny” and “internalized self-hatred,” which they in turn direct against other women (p. 69). What is at the heart of Kirino’s writing, Hemmann argues, is female sexuality. In order to prove this, Hemmann examines, for instance, representations of high school girls’ commodification of their own bodies, freelance prostitutes’ competition among themselves, and housewives’ social hierarchies determined by their husbands’ educational and professional statuses. Hemmann then uncovers how an economy of desire common to these figures ironically relies on misogynistic stereotypes, phallocentricism, and patriarchal hierarchies. The economy, as a consequence, pits the women against each other, instead of allowing them to support one another, “denying them success on the same level as their male peers” (p. 62).

Chapter 3 discloses the economic and emotional precarity that negatively affects the lives of Japanese housewives, as in Kirino’s Sabiru kokoro (1997). Dovetailing with Miho Matsugu’s claim that Kirino’s writing is a critical response to Kawabata Yasunari, who “erects textual barriers to keep out any traces of female interiority and subjectivity that could mar his metaphysical fantasy, Kirino dismantles them by linking the plot to a specific historical context and laying bare the female experiences that form the plot’s back story,” Hemmann argues that Kirino returns women to “a socioeconomic context,” whilst Kawabata transformed women into “abstract art” (pp. 74-75). Hemmann, thus, intervenes in the realm of “perceived stability as opposed to actual precarity” (p. 87) by closely analyzing housewives, who she argues are trapped in marriage and simply relegated to the position of unpaid domestic labour or shadow work, in sharp contrast to their public image as spoiled housewives. Hemmannn, in this way, illuminates Kirino’s “righteous feminist anger” against “the entrenched misogyny” and “sexist double standards” rampant in contemporary Japanese society (p. 95). Moreover, the English version of Sabiru kokoro, translated by Hemmann, is included in the “Appendix.”

Chapter 4 requires a radical paradigm shift of its readers, since Hemmann’s inquiry moves on to anime, manga, and their fandom, for instance, “Futaba Channel,” also known as “2chan.” Yet, consistent with the preceding chapters, Hemmann here, too, invokes the ethos of the “female gaze” and “wrong perspectives.” Closely reading Sailor Moon (1992-97) and Magic Knight Rayearth (1993-96), Hemmann argues that the “female gaze […] allows female readers to see celebrations of empowered female homosociality in works that would otherwise be dismissed as misogynistic”(p. 125), in the process challenging such theorists as Ōtsuka Eiji, Azuma Hiroki, and Saitō Tamaki for being “phallocentric” in their gesture of “tak[ing] the male gaze for granted” and “fail[ing] to take into account the female viewers, readers, and creators for whom fictional female characters are not removed from social and political realities” (p. 125). Those male critics, according to Hemmann, reproduce and reinforce the structure of “men as consumers, women as consumed” (p. 125). Yet, Hemmann deems characters such as the bishōjo (beautiful girl), sentō bishōjo (beautiful fighting girl), meganekko (girl with glasses), ojōsan (well brought-up young lady), and mahō shōjo (magical girl), as “site[s] of contention concerning discourses on female agency and sexuality” and argues that both Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth “disrupt the cycle of narrative consumption and reproduction that drives mainstream media” (p. 99) and overturn “clichéd tropes and narrative patterns” (p. 125), inevitably appealing to women audiences and serving as “feminist critique” (p. 125).

Hemmann recognizes women creators and their audiences embracing and celebrating a “sexuality that lies outside of virgin/mother/whore stereotypes” even in “sexualized images” of women (p. 99). One of the assumptions inscribed in Hemmann’s mode of thought, which her audiences should keep in mind, is that, as she explicitly states, female characters’ “[s]hallow characterization and short skirts alone do not make a work inherently sexist” (p. 115). She then claims that the heroines of Sailor Moon are empowering, transformative, and hence, exert “an overwhelmingly positive influence” on female fans (p. 108). More importantly, Hemmann foregrounds non-normative sexual identities that fight against evil, specifically an “openly lesbian couple” of Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus and a “transgender trio,” known as the “Sailor Starlights aid Sailor Moon” (p. 115). Additionally, Hemmann recalls how for herself as a young reader in the mid-to-late nineties, “Sailor Moon and her fellow Sailor Scouts were positive feminist role models,” noting that “the Sailor Moon manga and anime series were a rare oasis of female characters not defined by their attachment to men or involvement in romance,” unlike heteronormative “Disney princesses,” whose main concerns were their “fathers and boyfriends” (p. 112).

In Chapter 5, Hemmann argues that in the manga world produced by CLAMP, “the shōjo is not purely good, and the witch is not purely evil,” and therefore the former is “not required to fight or defeat” the latter, and the latter is “not required to pander to unrealistic and debilitating expectations of female purity and innocence” (p. 154). In this way, CLAMP’s xxx Holic (2003-11) breaks down the boundaries of gender and age stereotypes. CLAMP, for example, portrays a witch-type woman, Yūko, in terms of her appearance and some personality traits, whilst simultaneously presenting her as a nurturer and a proponent of tough love. She refuses to distinguish between the ideas of good and evil or right and wrong. She instead guides women to question their own belief systems. Ultimately, she “urges the women to abandon their shōjo-ness and enter the adult world of responsibility by paying the price for the power and agency that accompanies maturity and adulthood” (p. 152). She leads the women to notice what they are really wishing for when they insist on “following the path society has set out” by prioritizing their husbands and children over their own individual identities and desires (p. 152). In xxx Holic, Hemmann argues, “innocence and pure-heartedness are not virtues but rather detriments to a clearer awareness of one’s self and one’s surroundings” (p. 153).

Hemmann moreover points out that CLAMP subverts not only gendered limitations of fictional characters but also the gendered audiences presumed by “gendered publishing categories” (p. 156). CLAMP’s works were serialized in mediums such as Shūkan Shōnen Magazine and Young Magazine, with respective target audiences of older elementary school boys and male readers in high school or college. CLAMP’s success in those gendered mediums, Hemmann argues, attests to the fact that female characters “possessing a degree of subjectivity, interiority, and agency” (p. 155-156) can appeal to broad and diverse audiences. What is suggested here is that “female creators” in CLAMP are able to overturn “artificial and sexist notions of gender” when employing “gendered tropes in gendered media” (p. 156).

In Chapter 6, Hemmann argues that the “erotic female gaze” (p. 168) observed in yaoi fandom actively exposes contradictions embedded in “phallocentric homosociality,” and thereby subverts the concept of masculinity, interrupting “phallogocentric power structures” in Japanese society (p. 197). Yet, Hemmann is cautious. Presenting debates in the early 1990s between yaoi fans and actual gay men in Japan as introduced by Keith Vincent, she points out the tension between the two groups. Satō Masaki, a queer critic, once fiercely critiqued female yaoi fans for what he deemed to be their delusional views of homosexual men. Satō found the yaoi detrimental to the “goals of gay rights” at a time when gay activists were struggling to have homosexual identities better understood by a heteronormative Japanese society. Satō then criticized yaoi creators to the extent that these women creators felt pressured to apologize to gay men for their “offense” and to promise they would “do their best to abandon their queer sexualities and return to a more heteronormative existence” (p. 189). Those women’s attempt to “resist” against “phallocentric heteronormativity” was thus dislocated (p. 189). Hemmann seems to be marking a difficult moment in which efforts of both yaoi fans and gay men to destabilize heteronormative discourses ironically ended up reinforcing the very hegemony that they both strived to challenge. Yet, since the latter half of the 2000s, female yaoi fans in Japan have started to “reclaim their identity as consumers of fantasy gay narratives” (p. 190), namely, those of fujoshi (rotten women).

In the “Appendix,” Hemmann translates and includes a yaoi dōjinshi piece entitled “Kemuri” (Smoke, 2010), produced by Kou. “Smoke,” as Hemmann argues, manifests a desire for queering heteronormativity. The author, Kou, from the ranks of yaoi fandom, uses the erotic female gaze to transform a homosocial relationship between two males in xxx Holic, Watanuki and Dōmeki, into a homoerotic one, depicting “a bed scene” between these two spanning “six out of twenty-three pages” (p. 184). In this way, Hemmann elucidates the process through which yaoi fandom creatively challenges narratives of heteronormativity by “queering its phallocentrism” (p. 175) and heteronormative common tropes. Hemmann successfully foregrounds the “agency of the women who read and write” yaoi and calls an association of femininity with romantic and sexual passivity into question (p.188).

Hemmann’s strategic and astute reading of gender and sexuality, coded in Japanese crime fiction, anime, manga, and dojinshi, exposes not only the unequally distributed power dynamics in Japanese society but also the ways in which women creators and audiences have actively responded to and participated in disturbing such power dynamics. Japanese literature has a long history of engaging with the themes of girls’ bodies, aging bodies, violence against women’s bodies, and homoerotic desires. Hemmann’s work, in this sense, can be located within a genealogy of sexual politics in Japanese literature. Her dissertation expands the very category of Japanese literature, troubling the boundaries of junbungaku (pure literature), as well as those of popular and subcultures. Hemmann’s The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Literature lays a crucial foundation for educators who are interested in teaching courses on anime, manga, and popular culture as well as gender and sexuality studies in Japan, for students who are willing to pursue such themes as objects of their academic inquiry, and above all, for otaku and members of online fandom all over the world.

Nobuko Ishitate-Okumiya Yamasaki
Assistant Professor
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Program of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Lehigh University

Primary Sources
Kirino Natsuo, Riaruwārudo, Kōdansha, (2003).
———-, Gurotesuku, Bungeishunjū (2003).
———-, Sabiru kokoro, Bungeishunjū (1997).
Takeuchi Naoko, Bishōjosenshi Sērāmūn, Kōdansha (1992-1997).
CLAMP, xxx Holic, Kōdansha (2003-2011).

Dissertation Information
University of Pennsylvania. 2013. 326 pp. Primary Adviser:  Ayako Kano.

Image: from the opening splash page of the second volume of CLAMP’s manga xxxHolic (originally published in 2003, image courtesy of Kodansha)

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