Tag: media criticism
Thank You, Lindsay
I didn’t see the announcement right away. I heard about it from a youtuber I’ve never heard of and raced to my own Twitter to confirm. The news still has me a little shaken in the way that only a parasocial relationship can. Lindsay Ellis has quit making videos and has quit social media entirely. While at first I was shocked as this felt sudden, after her Mask Off video and her canceling over a pretty non-problematic opinion; I can honestly say I’m not surprised. I wanted to quit after my pretty mild canceling and I’ve always said if this is mild, I can’t even fathom what it’s really like and the truth is: because of Lindsay Ellis and Natalie Wynn, I can and it’s terrifying.
But while I could lament and grieve for an entire post, I want to spend this time thanking Lindsay Ellis. So let’s get into that.
I knew Lindsay first as the Nostalgia Chick under the now very Channel Awesome umbrella. She was snarky and sullen and a critic: like me. And at that time I meant the old school critic where basically you just hated everything but with “reasons”. I love that she readily called out the sexism in media and I thought she was a great foil to the Nostalgia Critic whomst I did at one time unfortunately find funny.
It took me a while to come around to some of her solo content under her name: Lindsay Ellis. They were mostly think pieces but at the time shorter and more about comparing different versions of the same character in various mediums. I thought they were mostly funny but nothing that really sold me on her brand. That would change when Lindsay started making video essays and goddammit did I find my bread and butter with that. Lindsay was biting and intelligent and used sources and resources that seemed only rivaled by her friend Contrapoints, another video essayist and thinker I admire greatly. At the height of “Breadtube” greatness between Philosophy Tube, Folding Ideas, Contrapoints, Hbomberguy, T1J and Lindsay Ellis were staples in my media diet. If you listen to my literature podcast, you know just how many times I reference Lindsay in conversation because I think she’s just that brilliant. She has changed my mind on media I love for good and bad. I never thought of RENT as that harmful until her video eviscerating it made me see just how damaging it was. I didn’t see much value in some Disney movies until Lindsay explained what their value and legacy was. I admired Lindsay and when I started making video essays, I tried (and let’s be real, mostly failed) to be like her and try to bring the same level of thought and care to my work.
Then the drama happened. Lindsay had been no stranger to criticism before. She had some hot hot takes back in the day trying to fit in with the boys, which is something I can very much relate to. And it seems like her tweet about Raya and the Last Dragon just stirred all of that up. She had faced criticism before but not like this and this seemed to be the instance that broke the camel’s back. I’m not here to say that her choice to leave isn’t valid; hell, if I faced criticism like she did, I would have quit forever ago. I remember messaging someone about her now infamous Mask Off video and with it’s large runtime I knew this was going to be a lot. I remember commenting that I wasn’t fond of her tone during the video at first like she owed me a damn thing and it took me thinking critically and realizing that an internet celebrity owes me nothing to make me realize that her anger in that video is so valid and earned and it wasn’t my place to comment on her anger and scathing tone.
She continued to produce videos for a little while and I had simply adjusted to her extended production schedule. She is an author, too. I was understanding. Perhaps that was why it was a shock that she said she was done and so a part of my media diet faded.
I want to take this time to thank Lindsay even though I know she’ll never see this and likely she won’t care. But I wanted to put my sincere gratitude somewhere. I had to put these feelings somewhere. I don’t feel like I’m losing a friend. Lindsay’s brand was always very…aware of parasocial bonding and I never felt some false closeness to her. She is unapproachable and that always made me respect her. She wasn’t my gal pal or my friend, she was a creator and someone I deeply respected and still do.
So goodbye, Lindsay. I hope you find peace and success in whatever you continue to do.
Understanding Male Gaze
It was male gaze that made me realize that I was not entirely straight and not entirely female. My attention given to women and female-presenting people was always more hungry and carnal than the way more sapphic cis women did. I always appreciated the female body in a way that felt more masculine, more male, more physical and that was when I started to understand male gaze. I didn’t want to write poetry about women, I wanted to be with women. That was how I started to understand male gaze.
Male gaze is something that not many enjoy talking about and the ones that do like to talk about it tend to only approach it from the stance of “it’s bad”. Well, sure it is, but it’s complicated. Male gaze like most things is neutral but has a negative connotation. It is, in short, the way cameras and media tend to leer, frame and discuss the female body; often sexualizing things that are not inherently sexual or lingering on a frame or part of the body. Male gaze is best seen on film either from cameras or motion pictures and there are notable examples like Michael Bay and his determination to shoot women like cars (his background was in music videos and ads) or the way swimsuit magazines even exist.
Female gaze would be the feminist and female counterpart and not to say women don’t sexualize the female form or the male form, for that matter. But female gaze tends to be more nuanced, far more subtle and less focused on sexualizing the mundane. Female gaze is interesting and could really be its own topic but I was pretty sure I understood what male gaze was; I could throw it around like the very best of postmodern media critics. I thought I understood male gaze because I have seen a Michael Bay Transformers movie. But no, I was wrong. It was a music video that really helped me understand male gaze.
Call on Me is a song I’ve heard plenty of times but have never seen the music video that accompanied the song. Not that I’m from the generation that aged out of music videos, this one just somehow managed to slide under my radar for many years. What immediately struck me to the point of nearly delirious laughter was just how horny this video was. And by horny I mostly just mean the choices made. Every shot is an extreme closeup or perfectly framed around a female human form. It’s also a male power fantasy in that of course there’s only one man in this incredibly sensual dancercise class. Each shot is just…good, lord. I think the first time I watched I was just sorta stunned. I’ve seen the video a few times now and each time over, I’m still struck by how many choices were made that made what should just be an aerobic dance class into a voyeuristic orgy.
It’s a choice and if I was the director, not a choice I think I’d make. But it is indeed a choice.
And that’s the perfect encapsulation of male gaze. It’s easy to see why these decisions are made by directors: I’m still thinking about and talking about this music video in the way that we love to jeer and mock Transformers and still give Michael Bay money for some reason. It was a choice to film women the way the director did, a choice to time each hip thrust, each close up on breasts and each legging-clad woman’s ass. It was a choice to make something like exercise, something that human beings just do, incredibly sexy for no reason at all. There was no point making the video the way they did outside of a very tantalizing reason; one more tempting than the promise of sex despite being an inadequate man who doesn’t deserve the women who give him attention: money.
The female body still sells, sex still sells and even in a world that is trying its damndest to embrace a more gender neutral world and one that focuses more on women as equals; a woman’s body still brings in capital. Now, I do know this video is a few years old but the sentiment and feelings behind it haven’t changed much. The same ideas that went into making this video are the same ones that allow modern movies and music videos to be made and be profitable. And sadly, it works. When we still view women as a commodity and sex as a product, it works and I’m giving more attention to a music video that realistically could and should just fade into the background hum of the universe.
This month, we’re going to be talking more about gaze and while we won’t be discussing male gaze next time, I don’t want you all to forget the power and potency of male gaze. None of us are immune as even though we like to think we are beyond that in film and advertising, we are far from so evolved to not be swayed by the siren’s call of male gaze. The way cameras linger and leer on the female body and encourage you to follow its stare and the way women are put into clothes that can barely be described as; the fetishization of school girls, youth and why it’s gross to have your hair in a ponytail: all of that is an aspect of male gaze and it leeches in pervasive ways into day to day life.
I hope that you came away from this little discussion with a better understanding of male gaze; it’s a word I see thrown around a lot and like many of the Tumblr criticism terms is not one that is often defined correctly. Like people can get about half way there to a compelling argument about male gaze and then they take a wrong turn at toxic masculinity and the whole thing goes to hell.
Stay learned, dear reader.
Rethinking Black Panther
I remember going to the theater to see Black Panther with a friend; both of us being African-American. There were people dressed in traditional African clothing and it was something truly beautiful. People were proud of being African or of African descent for the first time in a while. I was never so much a contrarian to think the movie was bad but there were parts that I found deeply problematic and unsettling. But with the pandemic, too much time to kill and my friend’s generous access to her family’s Disney+ account, I’ve rewatched Black Panther several times recently. This rewatch has been affected by a few things that have changed in the world and in my world since the movie’s original release in 2018; namely the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman and the continued pressures of racism and racial violence in the U.S. So we’re gonna talk about it.
Let’s start with a major gripe I had about the movie at first which was pan-Africanism and cultural appropriation. At first I was very bothered by the picking and choosing of various African motifs and clothes for Wakanda. You see various African cultures represented during the first trial scene and at first watch, that bothered me. Many of those cultures and traditions had nothing to do with each other but to show them off as all related and to a fictional land in Africa just bothered me as lazy costume design and story-telling. Not to say that the outfits weren’t executed with care: everyone looked great but it just sat wrong with me. On the third or so watch or so, I cared much less and was mostly just glad to see nice costumes. Now as far as the cultural appropriation goes; I still have an issue with it and it’s one that may shock some readers and is an instance hiding in plain sight. Hanuman is a real Hindu deity and while I do love M’Baku, his is using a god that is still worshiped by millions. Now, I don’t feel that strongly about the movie’s appropriation of Baast mostly because while she is worshiped by some pagans; the religion of the ancient Egyptians is not one still commonly practiced. The cultural appropriation still sits a little raw with me but I’m less willing to openly show displeasure about it: maybe I’m getting old.
Next up has to do with one of the biggest changes in opinion I’ve had on the film and that has to do with Chadwick Boseman. Now, the first time I saw the movie and the other MCU films that had Black Panther in it; I was always a little put off by Boseman’s almost sleepy performance. To quote a conversation I had with a friend: “It looks like he’s delivering every line with his dick being cut off.” I was really concerned about the utter lack of charisma the King of Wakanda had and that stayed with me until late last year when the news hit. Chadwick Boseman passed away after a lengthy and secret battle with cancer; meaning that all the roles he did for the MCU, he was in treatment for and dealing with a serious medical condition. It put things in perspective for many who had looked at Boseman as someone who just never seemed to match the energy of the other big personalities in the room when playing T’Challa. Even if your canon version of the King of Wakanda was one of the more regal and stoic types, Boseman to many (myself included) just seemed particularly low-energy without the context of a man who was battling disease and mostly suffering in silence. When the news of his death reached the masses, I felt like an immediate jerk: I was determined to take back every mean thing I had ever said because death tends to make saints of men but upon watching Black Panther a few more times I’ve come to a more balanced conclusion. Yes, the performance is subdued in comparison but really, everyone is except for Shuri who…we’ll get to. It’s a mostly laid back movie despite the stakes and message of the film. In his own movie, Boseman’s more flat affectation as T’Challa makes sense and though it does still stand out in other movies where he may not match the charisma of RDJ or Chris Evans: it’s still a good performance.
The battle in the climax of the film does nothing for me as it is still just CGI blobs fighting in dark CGI nothing-scape. Angela Bassett is literally wearing baskets on her head. Everyone’s accents are inconsistent and weird. Andy Serkis is…I suppose, happy to be a human being on camera? The movie has flaws still but upon many rewatches, I find it more and more enjoyable. We’re not done yet; we’re finally going to tackle who may replace Killmonger as “Character I Wish Would Fall into a Pit” the most: Shuri.
At first, Shuri was a funny character to me. I liked how funny and charming she was and she acted as a good foil to T’Challa’s more traditional and subdued personality. I was okay with her and her memes and the nonsense technology Wakanda has with its let’s say loose use of vibranium but after watching the movie a few times again; Shuri began to wear on me the most. She just knows too much in the way that many characters that are not written that well are. She has an answer to everything, a solution to everything; she’s very much written like a Mary Sue insert character. Now, I get that canonically she’s meant to be very smart and there’s a way to show that. Shuri is no Tony Stark, there’s just something about her that makes her quickness to correct people irksome (it’s probably internalized misogyny).
Now onto the character I had the most issue with on my first watch and still have issues with now: Killmonger. Killmonger is touted as one of the most complex, most right and best villains in the MCU and while yes, his motivations are, I suppose, better than Klaue’s or Ultron’s; I don’t think he’s all that right. Being black, I’ve seen his rhetoric. I’ve seen the class of ideals between peace and violence. Being the PR savvy person I am, I’ve always chosen peace. In my opinion, oftentimes, violence makes an entire group look bad and has rarely been a good way to get a point across. Exceptions exist for sure but on a whole I’ve never supported revolution that way. And Killmonger’s idea to just arm random black folk and hope that it will be a big enough show of force just turned my stomach. However, after seeing the horrific backslide we’ve made in the last few years when it comes to police brutality, racism, acts of violence and domestic terrorism: maybe he has a point. Maybe being nice isn’t getting us far. I still won’t ever advocate for violence on the scale he planned but after seeing so many unarmed black men die at the hands of the police who are meant to protect us: yeah, fuck up that Target.
I’ve had plenty of time to think about the media I ingest and why I ingest it. I can’t and won’t deny the impact Black Panther had on society and for black people. It was empowering to see an Africa not in strife and to see black excellence. It was empowering to see people use the Wakandan salute in real life to greet each other as a show of respect. I personally wouldn’t mind calling more white people “colonizer” when they speak out of turn or barking at them like M’Baku does. If this movie gave black kids someone to look up to, aspire to be, admire; then I’m not here to harsh anyone’s yums. I’ve had time to let my opinions mellow and change as the times have changed and because of that I’m still happy to say: Wakanda Forever.
How To (Properly) Not Like Things
As a lifelong contrarian and Prince of Unpopular Opinions, I get asked how to not like things. Well, you’re in luck. I’m willing to share my secrets with all of you.
Let’s Talk about Live PD
Carlos and I started watching Live PD as a piece of background noise during low moments in our convention weekends. The show is like this generation’s Cops, centering around various county police departments using dash cam, body cam and a very brave film crew to show eager viewers all the realistic, gritty and heart-pounding action that the brave men and women in blue face daily.
It’s also one of the finest pieces of police propaganda I’ve ever seen.
So let’s talk about it.
My human shell is that of an African-American and I grew up with a healthy respect for the police but a clear understanding that if I were to be arrested or in trouble, I would likely face much more hardship than any of my white friends. My grandmother would always say I would be thrown “under the jail” (apparently a euphemism not unique to her) and my aunts encouraged me to stay extra squeaky clean because even if I’m doing everything right, if a friend is not, I’m likely to face scrutiny. I was not ignorant to the history of violence and terror the police have with people of color, queer people, trans people and more but my own experiences were fairly benign. I stayed out of trouble and rarely did anything that brought in police activity.
That was before the wave of very public instances of police violence. I’m not going to mention all of them because my heart hurts and I’m tired but let’s be real, in a Post-Ferguson world, the reality most people of color have known for decades became very apparent that some bad apples (a lot of bad apples) can in fact spoil a bunch. What was shocking about the instances of police violence that became public within the last few years was that it simply amplified the black voices who have been claiming racism and cruelty for decades.
To be clear; I am not anti-cop, I am pro-staying alive. I know I am a coward and could not face danger the way first responders do, but I am also aware that this system, like many in this country, have a seriously muddy legacy with people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community.
In the 90s, we had a little show called Cops and in that show, cameras followed cops. Now, the show in the 90s was weird and certainly does not age well. The famous clip of officers harassing and deadnaming a trans woman comes to mind but the purpose of the show was to use the cameras and visibility as an attempt to build positive press for the police after the especially racially tense 1970s and 1980s. How do you do that? Show cops in the best light possible: saving people, risking their lives, going above and beyond and showing the clear and present danger that comes with the badge and gun.
Which brings us to Live PD. In a new era of distrust and fear of the police: how do we change the image of the police in the public view? Give us a show with action, a clear winner and good guy and overall shots of the police doing good in the world.
Where LivePD loses its luster for me is in the less edited show, LivePD: Patrol Cam where sometimes I think the cops forget they’re being recorded and during one very heated altercation in which, to be fair, the cop is being attacked by a person he’s trying to arrest and just over and over again screams “Shoot him!” which: okay, let’s pause to say that yes, I know that when it comes to assault that deadly force is allowed and that yes, this was scary and frightening and could have gone south real quick but after everything that’s happened, that still just seems in such bad form.
But Live PD’s most genius trick is in how it pretends to simply show the facts as they happen when really because of editing and framing, there is a clear narrative. Anyone who runs from the cops are evil, drugs are evil, bad people are bad. And while yes, bad people are bad and some drugs are bad; but have you ever considered why people run from the cops? Oftentimes it’s to escape warrants or fear of prison time or just fear of being caught but so often it’s genuine fear of the police. I hear time and time again on Live PD men and women say they ran because they didn’t want to get shot or risk being hurt. Now, to be fair, running is the last thing to do in the event of police nonsense but look at Sandra Bland; minus being mouthy, she did everything right and still ended up dead under some very shady circumstances. I understand that fear and for some, that fear means run.
We live in a curious world where a show can help change the perception of the police by making us all the cops in one way. Live PD is a very social show and viewers have seen people run, seen people toss drugs or have been able to “help” the cops in the chase. By giving us all badges, we can’t then question the police too much; we’re on the same team, right? And of course, all the footage of community outreach and generally just great police work: after watching a few hours of this show, it’s easy to think of the world in a binary: bad guys are bad, good guys are good and the guys with badges are good and the guy who got pulled over for speeding and happens to have a few extra pills on him is bad.
I don’t have time to talk about how the show frames race (of all kinds, really) or how it frames women and men differently or even how it pretends to minimize use of some drugs while truly vilifying the use of other substances. I don’t have time to talk about how the show parades around police dogs like a red herring to show us that maybe, just maybe being hunted by a large dog isn’t so bad if you deserve it. I don’t have time to talk about how scary it is to watch authority figures rationalize and “explain” why deadly force would have been used but how they are truly great for not using it. I don’t have time to explain all of those things.
I do have time to say that framing police chases and arrests as “thrilling entertainment” or by using the internet to “deputize” the masses to be more “vigilant” is dangerous, reckless and do not make us forget the men, women, children, queer people and far too many more who have been taken from us due to police violence. It does not make us forget the legacy of violence that the police have left as an indelible mark in the black and queer communities. I do have time to say that painting any police interaction as simply good and evil is naive and unrealistic.
I do have time to say that giving us a “fun” and “exciting” piece of TV reality television is not and will never be a balm to quell decades of distrust and fear.
The Channels I Stopped Watching
Youtube is a fixture in my media diet. Before I sold my soul to Hulu Live, Youtube and Netflix were my only sources of video entertainment. With Youtube being such an important part of my media consumption, it would only make sense that my tastes would change. So I briefly wanted to talk about a few of the channels I recently unsubscribed from.
To start, let’s talk about the types of channels I do like. Honestly, I love video essays and media criticism. Lindsay Ellis is one of my favorites. I love everything ContraPoints does. I love Dan Olson, Patrick H. Wilhems, Entertain the Elk, Super EyePatch Wolf and Screen Junkies. I love thoughtful discussions on media, social issues and more. I also like channels that teach me things like Crash Course, Religion for Breakfast, It’s Okay to be Smart and The Brain Scoop. There are the mindless entertainment channels like those that sait my lust for information and gossip about drag queens and I love makeup tutorials and cooking videos. I keep up with a few news channels like Vox and Vice and I follow some video game content and some mangatubers because of course I do. My media diet is, I suppose, fairly varied but also very me if you were to take a peak at those I subscribe to. Comics, food, travel, politics, drag queens, media and more. My Youtube feed is a simulacrum of me. And like more digital facsimiles, that image has in fact changed over time.
The first big channel I left was CinemaSins. Now, for those of you who don’t know, CinemaSins is a channel of mostly dude bros who like to write sin counts for movies, television shows and more based on tiny little nitpicks and an utter lack of knowledge. They claim to be cinephiles but they’re mostly just annoying men who think they know best. I did used to like their podcast more because it seemed to be less about dumb nitpick comments and more about movie theater stories but the channel just got to me. Honestly, I was pretty done when they dinged Avengers Age of Ultron for the absolutely stupid reason of “Well, if Tony Stark has the Hulkbuster armor, why doesn’t he just use that?” literally read any comic. Look at any comic. There’s an answer. And while normally I have no issue with bad faith criticism as entertainment, the problem is that CinemaSins has a platform, millions of viewers and many of those viewers just don’t have the tools to realize that this is not real media criticism. Look at modern movie reviews. Look at literally anyone who thinks all that being a review is having a camera and “opinions” and you’ll see the poisonous influence and dumbing down of media that CinemaSins has perpetuated and made standard. It frankly makes me sick as someone who criticizes media and is a student of writing, communications and media studies. And CinemaSins will say that this is satire and not to be taken serious but if you read the comments, you can see people are clearly taking this stuff seriously. It’s just careless and in a world where carelessness seems to run rampant, I rather enjoy thoughtful criticism of movies. If you’re looking for a good alternative, Screen Junkies is a great group of intelligent, diverse and thoughtful reviewers and though not all of their videos are the best, I find their criticism valid and entertaining.
Next up is another media review channel and for long time followers of my blog, you may know where I’m going with this. I used to love The Nostalgia Critic. And while I could never fault those who found the persona of the Internet grating, I mostly found the mix of reviewing newer properties and older properties with a humorous, sarcastic lens with a shocking amount of heart in places. I used to really like the mix of reviews that fell under the brand that was Channel Awesome. I used to like Channel Awesome. Now, I’m not here to discuss the litany of claims against the Walker brothers, the CEO of Channel Awesome, their horrible employees and the frankly unsafe and illegal conditions that their reunion movies were made under. I’m not here to discuss the fact that a rape scene was written into a script as a joke. I’m not here to discuss that. What finally got me to turn was their absolutely tone deaf response to a multi-page released document that clearly outlines every atrocity with the needed receipts. Victim blaming, deflection and gaslighting are things I just can’t support. It ended up tainting videos that I really enjoyed. I like Nostalgia Critic when he was thoughtful and admitted that things could be bad but still be fun. They were what I always sort of wanted from CinemaSins, admitting it’s a nitpick but then accepting it because for the people in the back: movies don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. But after the whole fiasco, it was easier than I thought to delete the Nostalgia Critic from my life.
Similarly, Screen Junkies faced a whole fiasco as we discovered their lead creator was a trash pile but it was Screen Junkies’ quick and prompt response that saved that relationship for me. It was handled, the bad man was fired, discussions were had out in the open and things moved on.
I’m sure I’ve unsubscribed to plenty more channels, mostly due to changing beliefs, changes in closeness or affiliation and similar reasons and I’m sure I’ll add more channels to the list of things I watch on a regular basis. It’s curious as well that the channels I mostly follow and have the most ire with are media criticism based channels. I think that may be one of the most concerning part about the death of discourse has been the death of valid criticism and that lack of thought, that lack of reason, that lack of tact honestly is why I’m so frustrated by modern…well, existence. We should hold our media accountable. We should be able to argue our points. We should be able to accept criticism.
So those are the channels I’ve recently unsubscribed from. If you have any suggestions for channels I should follow: let me know in the comments below.
My Changing Relationship With Anime
After my post about Sarazanmai and an earlier post about my feelings about more modern anime titles, I’ve been feeling like I need to explain myself. Because while I admit and own being a bit of a harsh critic, one thing I am not is a contrarian. I try to have reasons that I don’t like something and just saying “it’s modern” is rarely an excuse for me. But after going over the tapes, I absolutely can see how people would assume that I just have a vendetta against modern anime. I sound bitter and old and sometimes I feel bitter and old. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about my relationship with anime.
But before we talk about the present, we need to talk about the past. I first came into contact with anime at 6 with DragonBall. From there I stayed safe with a lot of the series that are anime but never really felt like anime to me just another cartoon but with different faces: mostly shows like Sailor Moon, CardCaptors, Pokemon and DragonBall/DragonBall Z. It wasn’t until I was 9 that I started really seeing anime as something different and that was mostly thanks to YuYu Hakusho. By 12 I had fully embraced glorious Nihon with series like InuYasha, Trigun, Case Closed and Cowboy Bebop and the rest is history.
If you’ve been keeping track, I have been an anime fan for over 20 years. And a lot has changed in the world of anime and manga. But a lot has changed for me personally, as well. It’s telling that I fell in love with anime during one of the most trying times of my life: I had lost my father at 12, moved in my aunts, had emancipated myself and was doing my best to cope with grief and loss and my own changing identity and personality. And some of the series that mean the world to me like Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note and Bleach hit me when I was in high school. I wasn’t much older than Edward Elric when he lost his mom so seeing someone like me process grief and use science and will and grit to overcome loss was intensely powerful.
But in 20 years, my life has changed a lot. I did join the Tony Stark Club for Successfully Disastrous Orphans, I finished college, I moved away from my hometown and started a life on my own. I didn’t stop liking anime but I like to think I have matured in those years.
Which leads us to where we are. I for sure do look like a harsh media critic and honestly, that probably started in 2010 with a little show called Attack on Titan. Now, keep in mind in 2010 I was 20 years old and had some of the best anime series ever made happen during the most formative times of my life. AoT to me was a lazy redux of series I already held near and dear to my heart but for many this was their first big bombastic shonen. For me it was a dumb series that thinks its very smart and the vitrolic fandom around it made me seriously question what I was doing as an anime fan. And those feelings have persisted now for nearly 10 years. New anime comes out, I feel very little about it. I feel worse about it because of hyperbolic fandom and it leaves me in an odd place.
Before every major convention I usually do a cram session so I can be aware of what the kids are watching and having to cram in the top three of what’s popular only continued to sour me on modern anime. I think it was just my approach. I’m also a very stubborn little goblin. I don’t like being “told” what to do so my friends who have suggested series to me rarely are met with open and loving arms but mostly hissing and frustration. There’s only one series Carlos has suggested to me that I watch and that was Devilman Crybaby. I do tend to watch what is suggested to me but it’s typically pulling teeth and the faint memory of “being told what to do” lingers with me. Look at my feelings on Sarazanmai and Yuri On Ice: two shows that I like (hell, one that I like a lot) but that moment of being told what I would like and what I wouldn’t like…it just got under my skin. Maybe it goes back to the whole struggle of being biologically female and an anime fan that so much of it was spent being told what I would and wouldn’t like or having to prove my fandom. I’ve let that become an excuse and my unwillingness to try new things is bothersome.
I struggle with a feeling of hollowness in newer shows. My Hero Academia is a perfect example of that for me. On paper there’s a lot that this show has going for it and going for me. But watching now, I mostly just don’t understand character motivations or why any of this matters. Why did All-Might make a kid eat his hair? Did they think fanfiction writers wouldn’t notice? Why is Bakugo so mad at Izuku? What crawled up Iida’s ass and died there? I have so many questions. But I didn’t want those questions answered and I abandoned ship around episode four. And the comment I kept going back to as I thought about My Hero Academia was that if this series hit me at the same time that Naruto did, I would be all over this. Not to say that older fans can’t be down for whatever All-Might is putting down but for me, it was just a little too much like a shonen series that I loved to make it truly special to me or worth further investigation.
That hollowness I believe comes from the fact that as I mentioned, some of the best anime ever made were ones that came to me during a very formative parts of my life. Why would I watch a discount Naruto? I have Naruto. Why watch a knock-off Evangelion? I have Evangelion. And I’m intentionally being reductive because it’s easier to fit into the structure of this post but if I have to be nuanced, then yes, as a media critic a lot of more recent series do feel like rehashes of long-standing tropes and that’s a key point. These shows aren’t bad but they are using a formula that is now decades old and has been seen over and over again.
A lot of newer series suffer purely by the fact that I have seen an anime before. I have less patience now for a protagonist who doesn’t struggle and has no problems, for an antagonist who is tacked on for merchandise and a villain with a dumb plan. I’ve been doing this for decades, it takes more to impress me. Which is probably why my taste in anime has changed so much in the last few years. The series that have truly captured me have been ones that subvert my expectations. Space Dandy was a masterclass in meta humor and heart. Devilman Crybaby gave me a full on existential crisis that left me a babbling mess. Sarazanmai left me genuinely worried about three dumb boys and two dumb murder cops.
So when a show like, let’s say Food Wars, hits a lot of shonen beats in a very linear fashion from loud main male to antagonist with muddy reasons to be an antagonist and a story line that is let’s be honest basic then you can see why I’m bored.
It’s interesting to think that a lot of the series I still watch are either the classics or are slice of life or romance series now considering that I was such a shonen fan when I was younger. A lot of the newer boy’s love series (well, newer as in their new anime adaptations of manga I read when I was too young to read them) have been excellent and comedies like Pop Team Epic have been way more interesting to me than Fairy Tail ever could be. I’m old enough to catch some of the references and I’m mature enough to want to escape the misery that is my current routine and just watch two men be in love and eat cake or something together.
I will say there are two points that I want to make as far as newer anime goes and especially newer anime fandom. The death of discourse is a huge problem for me as I even try to navigate some of the newer series. I do my very best to have reasons to not like a thing and folks being garbage about valid criticism is a great way to turn passive malaise into full on hatred. Looking at you, Yuri on Ice. Second point is a lack of looking backwards. This may be a generalization but as I talk to newer fans there’s this shocking lack of knowledge of series that go past 2010. I understand that the shows I grew up with are old but to even walk into a comic book shop back in the day I had to be able to know and talk about series that were running before I was born. And as soon as I accepted that anime was my new lifestyle, I naturally wanted to look back. I saw Outlaw Star and the old 70s run of Lupin III and did my best to understand that anime was not something that started for me in the 1990s. A lot of the hyperbolic rhetoric around newer anime like this show is the first or this show is the only just fundamentally sticks in my craw. Nothing is original anymore and that’s perfectly fine but you aren’t going to tell me that a cartoon that was released this year is somehow treading new and uncharted waters. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been in a panel and I’ve mentioned a show like Cowboy Bebop or InuYasha only to be met with silence. I get it. These shows are old but dammit they’re like anime required reading, it’s just basic. I don’t make the rules I just enforce them and judge you for not following them. And you kids have the internet now. Back in my day (full old man rant time) we had to wait for that one friend whose parents were stationed in Japan to bring back DVDs or to just full on spend weeks trying to find a bootleg copy of stuff.
In hindsight, I do want to be more careful with how I talk about anime nowadays because even though a series may not be my cup of tea, it does not give me an excuse to be a garbage person to anyone for liking it. I can also be more open to trying new things and not being such a stick in the mud. There are shows that are on my list and that I want to try and I want to be open to. I want to be less stubborn and try the things my friends suggest to me: they wouldn’t suggest something to me that they think I wouldn’t like
What has been incredibly freeing is realizing that a lot of these shows aren’t for me. Not to say that age is everything. Toi in Sarazanmai is several years my junior but I absolutely could relate to his pain, nihilism and want to be close to someone because they are related even though they are trash. It’s a weak argument to assume I or anyone really would just “outgrow”. If anything what I’ve noticed is that in any given series my gaze has merely shifted. In Fullmetal Alchemist I went from relating very much to Edward to now seeing a lot of Mustang’s perspective because I relate to be a tired old man surrounded by idiots but still has grand ideas of taking over the world despite the heavy burdens of mental illness and trauma. The episodes of My Hero Academia that I did watch I found myself not relating to Izuku but All-Might who is mostly jaded, exhausted but so badly wants to believe in the good inside people.
My relationship with anime is complicated. The ones I love I will love forever even if I can now see flaws in their facades. The newer ones that people assume I’d like I tend to find a little lackluster and the newer ones that I have committed to have became part of my usual rotation. I love anime and probably will until I am no longer able but I admit it’s been harder and harder to say that I am an anime fan just because so few of the newer shows do it for me. I do want to continue to challenge myself to try newer series and my goal recently has been to go over a few of those mid 2000s series that I completely skipped over as I was busy obsessing over like two shows at the time. I also want to start refining my language when it comes to critiquing and talking about anime.
Anime changed my life. I’m not being hyperbolic by saying that. Literally anime has changed and saved my life. It gave me some of the best friends in the world that mean everything to me. It taught me so much about myself and others. Anime gave me something to look forward to and discuss and study and explore. It helped give form to my feelings. Without anime I doubt I’d be writing much now. Without anime I wouldn’t cosplay. Without anime I would be an entirely different person. I’m proud to be an anime fan. I’m proud to be an older anime fan. So even though sometimes my relationship status feels more like “it’s complicated” the answer at the end of the day is still as it was two decades ago: “in a serious relationship”.
What Sarazanmai Did Wrong…And Then Oh So Right
If you pitched me a show about three middle school boys being turned into kappas and having to do a lot of what is essentially weird butt stuff to make the plot advance and also there are two vouging murder cops and a ton of puns I would tell you to get out of my apartment and to leave me alone. I was encouraged to watch this show by a close friend (the same person who lovingly encouraged me to watch Yuri on Ice) and when I started the series, I admit, my mind and heart weren’t in it. I had gotten into a minor car accident, I had convention stress on my mind, my job was wearing on me and when I started up the anime I mostly felt full of salt, bitterness and anger at the absurdity of the first episode. I got two episodes in and gave up, mostly tired of puns, kappas and weird butt stuff.
It was Carlos that got me to watch the series again at A-Kon because as I told him about the show, he noticed the same thing the person that recommended the show to me noticed, this checks off a ton of boxes for me in theory.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Sarazanmai about? Well, let’s go over the plot briefly. 3 boys: Katsuki, Toi, and Enta are cursed by a kappa named Keppi to become kappas and correct the world of evil zombies that have something to do with desire and exorcising those demons correctly (think about Bleach where only Soul Reapers can send spirits off to the Seireitei correctly and if something happens to that spirit or someone else tries to send them off they can become Hollows, monsters or something worse). It starts as a monster of the day sort of thing with some overarcing plot points (like the vouging murder cops) but the first half othe series is just monster of the week.
I’ll probably spoil things because that’s who I am but this series takes a dive that I’ll talk about more soon but back to the timeline. Carlos and I ended up watching about three or four episodes in our hotel room with way less pressure on me and while I still thought the series was mostly dumb and absurd, I was able to have more fun and just sort of enjoy the ride. We stopped right as a major plot point began and Carlos chided me and said I’d probably finish the show on my own.
Fast forward to con being over and me crying hysterically on my sofa lamenting over my series son (look at the poster and guess which one is my son, you get a cookie if you’re right) and spirling into emotions I haven’t felt since Hitorijime My Hero as far as oh no, a Japanese cartoon has hit too close to home or honestly, like Avengers: Endgame in the scope of feeling that everything I love is wrong and dead and how do I cope? My children, oh no, how do I save them?
So after a few days, I’ve decided to write about this series. I have finally left Kappa Hell. So let’s talk about it.
Let’s go over what this show did wrong first and honestly, it was the absurdity. Now, I’m an anime fan. Hetalia is one of my favorite series, I can handle absurd. I can handle vocal tics, kero. I can handle puns even the otterly devastating ones and I can handle plot points that make zero sense like desire being held in the butt and having to carry around a box of something sacred to you. What I can’t handle is not feeling like any of that matters. Remember my issue with Food Wars? It’s similar. I had lots of questions after I entered Kappa Hell but upon first watch, I wanted none of them answered. I had no curiosity. I just wanted it to stop. Now, I’ll give a lot of weight to my mental state here. I was not in a good mood, frantic and emotional and I don’t like being pressured even lightly into anything. Spite is a powerful motivator and at that point I probably would have turned my nose up to ice cream or buttered sourdough rolls or even to a series I know I like.
When I removed the pressure to like the series so I didn’t disappoint someone I care for deeply, I found that surface level it was still sort of absurd but in a way I was curious about. I think having Carlos with me absolutely helped that because when we got to the two cops who were dancing and muttering quite a bit in the back of a police station, we rightfully had questions about that and came to the conclusion that the other cops just let these two have their little dancing moment and interrupt what was official police business.
Next up is a small voice acting nitpick because each episode features a song about removing evil from zombies and usually it’s sung by Katsuki (who is pretty decent in the sub) but later on the series, Toi takes over and Enta does too and Carlos and I both joked that we found the one (the voice actor) who has the album coming out later. It’s adorably distracting but dissonant.
I’ve always been up front in admitting that the series is beautiful and a lot of the designs benefited from looking a lot like things I already like, including tan blonde cop Rin Matsuoka (his name is Reo) and Kuji who looks like an adorable little school boy version of Jason Todd. The colors are bright, the sets are good, the music grew on me as I continued and the plot…well, this is Kappa Hell. Let’s talk about the plot.
Remember how I said that the first part of the series feels like monster of the week sort of thing? Well, threads are still forming and they start to get pulled on around episode five and boy when those threads are tugged. Little things you’ve noticed start to make sense and honestly, the story became more than just a bunch of boys exorcising demons through weird puns and butt stuff but became about desire, want, needs, selfishness and bonds.
Katsuki does some pretty strained and strange things to ease his guilt about what happened to his little brother. Enta full on sabotages things so he can have a reason to stay close to his crush, Katsuki. Toi has an unhealthy relationship with his mob boss older brother and is willing to do literal crimes to cover for his aniki. Blonde Matsuoka-kun cop, Reo, is actually deeply flawed and deeply in love with his partner, Mabu and Mabu is literally some kind of golem who was willing to give up his love for Reo so that he could stay alive in an attempt to stay by Reo’s side despite death having taken him prior. It all spirals quickly, sadness after sadness and it left me screaming and worried and unsure how to process emotions about these characters. I felt for Reo as he mourned the death of his beloved once more and related to his willingness to lash out in anger only to die and be reunited with Mabu at last. I felt for Toi who so badly wanted to be with his family after loss left him with few he could rely on and even if that meant doing things that were morally compromising to him. I related to Katsuki who ended up being quite selfish in trying to be selfless. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt series for a show about kappas, puns and butt stuff.
When the tone of the show started to change and focus more on bonds and what we do to keep them is when it did something magical: it reminded me of a long-time lover. It reminded me of Gravitation. One of Yuki Eiri’s main themes in Gravitation is his connection to his sensei and his desire to remain connected to that horrible man and how that often butts up against what he wanted later on in the series which was a relationship with Shuichi. Gravitation is all about bonds and what we’re willing to do to keep them. Tohma is willing to lie and gaslight to keep Eiri. Shuichi is willing to be a victim to keep Yuki. Yuki is willing to be abused by Tohma so that he can keep one thing sacred and in turn he abuses Shuichi because that’s all he knows. Love sometimes is a selfish feeling and drives us to do not so romantic things.
Towards the end of Sarazanmai, the plot centers more and more on the theme of connections and bonds and the fact that sometimes we do terrible things to keep those that we want close. Reo and Mabu’s arc together is such a great example of the horrible things we can do to each other just to feign what was once a great and healthy bond and just how toxic and corrupting grief can become. And that’s surprisingly thoughtful from a show that has a main plot point being a young boy who crossdresses as an idol girl to keep his little brother happy and seems to enjoy being in a dress a little too much.
There’s one more point I’ll bring up and I think it encapsulates why the show made me so emotional but also managed to bring me back around and that’s consequences. For a dumb show about kids turning into kappas there’s a lot of violence, particularly gun violence (which is rare in Japan because, hey, effective gun laws work). The two cops use their guns to remove desire from deviants and thus turn them into monsters and Toi uses a gun because his aniki is yakuza and of course he does. Towards the end, Enta is shot and honestly, he gets very close to death and it’s not sugar-coated and I felt horrible for this kid who was just doing his best. Toi is forced to kill his beloved aniki because he realizes that his brother is just not good for him and Reo is killed because he lashes out in anger after losing his beloved Mabu once more. Sure, this is still a show clearly aimed at younger audiences and most of it is sort of waved away by kappa magic but in the moment it felt so real and so grounded and so emotional that I cried more than I like admitting.
Let’s talk about my son, Kuji Toi. If you guessed correctly, you can claim your cookie now. Toi has the best arc in the series because he has to come to terms with the fact that his relationship with his aniki is flawed and dangerous and what is beautiful is that he faces consequences. The last sequences of the series are Toi being sent off to prison for his crimes. He spends years there and we resume with him returning home older, more jaded and more alone as he had spent years away from his friends and family and likely had little to return to as now he was a criminal, or at least society hopes, a reformed one. He also has the most realistic feelings about connections in that he feels his life is at times just not worth the risk to his friends and his dive into melancholy and depression in the last episode just made me want to hug him if I wasn’t so concerned about the fact that he’d stab me over it.
The series does end on a happy note with the friends all coming together once more and that optimism but that’s again a surprising amount of weight and thought for a show that was meant to be a bit of a throwaway as far as I was concerned. I felt for Toi and was glad he faced consequences for his actions because that’s one thing about anime, especially boy’s love, that I struggle with: a lack of consequences for bad things. Sure, Toi did kill his aniki over something valid and but he still did kill someone and seeing him face a consequence made it oh so worth it.
Sarazanmai didn’t do much for me at first but as I continued on, I got emotionally invested in these characters and their lives and I ended up a babbling mess of emotions and worry about these boys who were just doing their best. I wanted to protect all of them. I wanted them to be okay. I wanted things to be okay. There’s a melancholic optimism to the show that I can relate to. We hope things are going to be okay but the series cops to the fact that we just don’t know. We can hope that the boys are going to be okay, but there’s no promise that things are going to be okay. The future is uncertain and that’s just fine. So long as we’re connected, even if we drift apart, the bonds that we formed never truly leave us.
With a Flair for the Dramatic
I have loved villains in media since I was a very small hellspawn. Whether it was my attraction to Lord Sesshomaru in InuYasha or my undying allegiance to Prince Vegeta in DragonBall Z, villains have always done it for me. Narratively, they usually get the coolest powers, best lines, and most interesting motives even if they make zero sense. Like really, what was Master Naraku’s problem? He didn’t get to sleep with one priestess and that was enough to want to mess with literally everyone else he came in contact with? But why? Doesn’t matter, he was hot and had a cool design.
But in the spirit of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, I want to talk about something that others have covered but I wanted to put my own spin on as well. I want to talk about queer coding and villains. In fact, there’s a great Princess and the Scrivener video that I’ll link here that talks about this mostly with Disney villains and I’ll use a lot of similar points but really, there’s only so much queer theory to go around.
Here’s the basics: villains in Western media (I exclude Eastern for now but put a pin in this) are often times coded (portrayed using mostly visual and linguistic shorthand) as queer or effeminate to prove a point, that point being mostly how virile and masculine the protagonist is. Think about Scar in The Lion King or Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas. They’re both pretty aggressively queer-coded with all the glitter and flamboyance to highlight how masculine and strong the protagonists are. Ursula looks and sounds like an angry drag queen because she’s based off an angry drag queen and Frollo, despite very clearly lusting after a woman, is given very showy clothes and his attraction to Esmerelda can even be read as somewhat closeted.
And though the video I linked talks about this mostly in the negative…I know I’m just one queer out in the world but I’ve never had an issue with that. I love Disney villains as you can tell by my very enthusiastic Dr. Facilier cosplay. This is one of those places I don’t think queer coding is terrible as if the internet is to gauge, a lot of queer people found themselves in Disney villains.
Now, my realization that I maybe wasn’t quite cis or het may have come from anime but I can also super see the appeal and reason why someone who may be a little different, a little sparkly, a little more fashionable and way more sassy may attach more readily to villains and thus celebrate that.
So that pin I asked you to put in about Eastern media, let’s come back to that because here’s where we tie in East and West. The question is why code a villain or antagonist as queer. Is it just to show off how masc and strong your hero is? Well, yes and no. The root of the reason is the same as the root of many evils: misogyny. It’s easy to take down a villain that is by most writer’s standards a perversion of masculinity which is femininity. Think of Szayel Aporro Granz in Bleach. What is the point of making him such a queen? What does that do for us? Well, when we see him in comparison to the mostly morally strict and pure Uryu, he comes an easy villain to wish ill upon. Except for me, I love him and can’t wait to cosplay him. Many cultures view masculinity as the most strong and most capable, so making your villain queer, feminine or even downright trans in the case of some anime (looking at you again, Bleach) is a great way to create parallel and difference between the force you’re meant to be rooting for. So when Szayel has a sword thrust deep into him, a strange phallic sort of metaphor at the hands of another queer-coded character, you’re meant to be reminded of his perversion, deviance and girly nature and think that those things are bad.
Again, it’s about optics. I love his character and him being aggressively queer-coded doesn’t bother me as much as other characters in the same show do. Even one of my favorite series of all time does this with a villain most ignore and that’s Barry the Chopper in Fullmetal Alchemist, really, what’s the point of making him a crossdresser? Does it add anything? No. But I can tell you that I can still recite his lines in the same lyrical sing-song fashion that Jerry Jewell brought the character in the dub and it scared one of my friends very much to know I can do so.
I’ve spent a lot of words talking about the fact that I don’t think queer coding in villains is that bad but if you follow me over on Twitter then you must know what is to come.
Y’all, I don’t like BBC’s Sherlock. I don’t like Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock, Martin Freeman is fine but the plot, the lack of plot and the aggressive queer coding of most of the characters rubbed me the wrong way to start. Episode one features many jabs at how gay Watson and Sherlock must be for each other and that was a bitter enough pill to swallow but then we meet Jim Moriarty. Oh Moriarty. What even is he? Why is he? What is he doing? Andrew, no. Please. Don’t do this. Not like this. Moriarty isn’t even queer coded because coding is meant to be at least a little subtle. He’s just the most. There’s an amazing Hbomberguy video that makes all of these points much better than I ever could but here is my problem with Moriarty’s queer coding while I’m willing to give it a soft pass in other places. What is gained by Moriarty being queer coded? Why do we need to know that he’s apparently slept with one of his bodyguards? Why does it matter that he’s dressed up in the crown jewels? Why do we care that he apparently has the biggest of possible hard-ons for Sherlock? Why? What does this add to the story? You can just have him be a villain. It feels like it’s pandering and that’s why Moriarty doesn’t get a pass from me. Nearly every other queer coded villain has a reason for it. Even if the reason is a crappy one like internalized misogyny but really if you made Moriarty less queer coded, does anything change? Does this make him interesting? Steve Moffat, do you think this is helping? I tend not to throw around the word queerbaiting a lot because I think it’s overused by fans who are just unhappy their ship didn’t sail but in this case queerbaiting Moriarty and coding so aggressively as a flashy queer man doesn’t do a damn thing for the narrative. It’s good for slash fic and even then to what end? Does Sherlock show any interest in Moriarty? No. He shows no interest in anyone, that’s the damn problem. What’s the point? Why are we doing anything? Is bear still driving?
Queer coded villains are frustrating. So much of it is rooted in old and toxic aspects of culture that prize traditional masculinity over flamboyance, style, fashion, good puns and excellent villain songs. And there are other examples where this fails. Think about all the fuss with LeFou being the first out gay for Disney in Beauty and the Beast(2017). What does making Gaston’s literal idiot sidekick gay do for the plot? A whole lotta nothing.
I can see why some in the LGBTQIA+ family are more up in arms about queer coding and villains because at the end of the day, a lot of these characters die or face some horrible evil and that just isn’t fun. It isn’t fun watching a character you relate to face a horrible death and it does continue to perpetuate a lot of things about being queer that many do not like. Not all of us are sassy, mean, flashy and out to steal your girl/boy.
But for those of us who are all of those things and oh so much more…well, let’s just say that I do love my queer coded villains… most of the time.