Male Gaze: Stereotypical Feminization and Sexist Generalisations in Cartoons

The male gaze, for a long time, has been a subject of investigation in popular discourses such as cinema and literature. This article attempts to explore and substantiate the same using cartoons in the Indian and Japanese context which have consciously or subconsciously yielded into this system of stereotypical feminization and sexist generalisations.  

The Young girl feels that her body is getting away from her… on the street, men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.

Simone De Beauvoir in Second Sex

The Male Gaze refers to the act of depicting women and the world told through the idealist perspective of the heterosexual masculine cis viewer, which is warped by the hyper sexualisation and objectification of women. The term was originally coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ to describe the cinematic angle with which a heterosexual male character looked at a female character. Thus, the ‘male gaze’ invokes the sexual politics of the gaze by which the woman is simply reduced to a sense of aesthetic pleasure for the man which, in turn, empowers men, while objectifies women. It’s visibly comprehensible in films or video games where the camera deliberately pans cover women’s bodies, often zooming in and out in slow motion, on their various body parts. 

Arguably, viewing our bodies as separate from our minds promotes objectification and self-surveillance, that is, viewing one’s body from an outside observer’s perspective.

Nadia Craddock, a research fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research

Therefore, it becomes pertinent to study and challenge this further in other visual mediums including cartoons, mangas, and anime, for instance. While the cartoons we were so fond of as kids may have been a wellspring of amusement and laughter for us, it’s only now that one can attempt to understand and identify the blatant sexist generalisations and objectification of women, persistent deeply in the very sources of amusement. In fact, if you’re familiar with contemporary animation?, ?or the entertainment industry as a whole?, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: from writers’ desks to character rosters, cartoons have long been a boys’ club.

Hibbeler (2009) analyzed masculine representations in Disney animated feature films and concluded that Disney does not appear to be making progress toward more accurate and positive representations of male characters. Male characters that were heroes and central were portrayed as being younger, slender, sexual and romantically involved, aggressive, and as having family structures not commonly seen in society. These representations of male characters are very stereotypical in nature and further propagate misogyny at its core.

Often, the female protagonists in such cartoons represent a heavily gendered stereotype of a silly and frivolous person whose only positive trait is to attract men. This way, they simply get reduced to merely a two-dimensional, porcelain symbol of femininity meant to be rescued and provided for by a man who simply knows better and has a higher purpose in life diminishing women as pervasive and exploitative caricatures.

We may have been elated at hearing the news of Shizuka and Nobita finally getting married, but how much progress have we really made? The Japanese Manga fails to distinguish from its other contemporaries in stereotyping women. The female characters, though strongly determined, are shown as either too aggressive, unexplainably rude, and irritated beings like Nobita’s mother, accompanied with uncomfortable feminine imagery, or often meek and modest damsels in distress like our very own Shizuka. For instance, even though Shizuka is in the top scorers of her class and quite smart and intelligent, her pastimes include going to piano lessons, baking cookies, and learning to paint. Often, she is attacked by the supposed ‘villain’ of the episode, only to be rescued by Nobita and Doraemon’s gadgets. 

The male gaze in the Japanese Manga ‘Doraemon’;cr. YouTube (@BeBean TV)

Adding the cherry on the top is Nobita’s continuous obsession over her, so much so that he somehow, always lands up in her house only to see her bathing, which is creepy, to say the least, and, a sexual offence in the 21st century. The makers of the show, for some reason, repeatedly use such bathing and flying skirt scenes in an attempt of, perhaps, weaving a ‘cute’ love story. The reason for the same can be cited as male ideologies monopolising the conversations over female identity and characters in visual representations and theatre across the globe. It can be argued that Japanese society is traditional, and the cartoon was created in the 1970s, so maybe it is reflective of a certain time and place, but the pertinent question, then, becomes: why are we seeing it in 21st century India?

One of the many bathing scenes in Doraemon; cr. MxTube.net

Now, a popular discourse here would be that cartoons are meant for entertainment and ‘fun’ purposes only, and therefore should not be looked at from a feminist lens, or even, an instructional one, for that matter. However, to inspect it in isolation would very well be implying that it’s okay to distort reality by underrepresenting the female identity and pushing forward the idea of male as the superior sex, thus creating narratives, not to say, on very impressionable minds, of gender biases and objectification of women. This suppression of identity not only sidelines the narratives of female identity but also completely negates the existence of any form of non-binary identity from mainstream conversations. 

Another archetypal manifestation of similar discourses would be Shinchan, often criticised for its intensive mockery and objectification of female characters. Moreover, it propagates rigid gender roles in terms of the women supposedly staying in and taking care of the house, while the man of the house ventures out in order to work and ‘provide’ for the family. The men, thus, remain restricted to their professional sphere while the woman cannot step out of the confines of her home, and even if she does, it’s portrayed in a completely objectifying manner so as to attract enough men, such as Shinchan’s supposed crush, Nanako Ohara. Matsuzaka, the kindergarten teacher, another of the stereotyped female personas, is desperate to find a potential match and get married for despite being an accomplished teacher, her sole purpose in life is reduced to seeking the perfect union. 

An apparent meme on Shin Chan mocking his teacher, Matsuzaka; cr. RVCJ

What also becomes important to understand, here, is that most of these women behave or dress in accordance with the purpose of gratifying the ‘male gaze’, however subconsciously, though. They submit to their assigned gender roles, thus further perpetuating and normalising such narratives which repressively take root in the mind of the viewer, thus making them believe that this is the norm, driving them to conform to similar patterns and exemplars. 

Not exempt from the umpteen list seeps in our very own Chhota Bheem which proliferates male chauvinism at its very core. While the main protagonist is a male, there is a dearth of female characters across most episodes. His core group of friends has four members including him. One female character figures as his close friend in a primary role. However, her functional role is limited to being a part of Bheem’s daily escapades and providing him with unconditional support. In the episode ‘Lost in the Wood’, when the entire group of friends goes for a picnic, Chutki lays down the plates and serves food. She is further stereotyped as emotional and nurturing and possessing maternal and caring instincts, while Bheem goes all John Abraham on the villains. In the episode, ‘Kaalia’s Master Plan’, Chutki is shown to be cheering for Bheem as he fights and then shown to be fluttering her eyes when Bheem wins.

The intense feminization of Chutki in Chhota Bheem; cr. Latestly

Similarly, in another Japanese Manga series Ninja Hattori, one witnesses an entirely gendered narrative. All the feminine representations are extremely stereotypical. Kenichi’s mother remains confined to the four walls of her kitchen. In one of the episodes, ‘Out with a Secret’, she is shown to be reading a detective novel only to be interrupted by the kids and her husband on their return home and their demand for food. On stating that she was not able to prepare anything for she had been reading, she is meted out with their extreme anger and disappointment. None of them (all being male characters) is shown to go to the kitchen and organize food. The narrative, in fact, shows the mother leaving her novel and going to the kitchen. Such instances are representative of extremely stereotypical gendered portrayals. In another episode, ‘Even a Ninja Can Have a Cavity’, Yumiko is shown to be talking to Hattori on the roadside when a truck passes by. Her skirt flies up, leaving her embarrassed. She thinks that Hattori is looking at her and gets very angry. The notion of females as the object of the male gaze can be drawn out from this particular instance. While Hattori tries to absolve himself of Yumiko’s accusation, this narrative is subservient of sexualizing female bodies.

The mother, confined to the kitchen in Ninja Hattori; cr. YouTube

Other cartoons such as Popeye, Johnny Bravo, and so on, again, seriously lack characterization and representation. The problem here is not only of the stories but also the storytellers, which are clearly dictated by the male gaze and fail to opt-out of the conservative stereotyped assumptions, thus failing to incorporate and make room for progressive works of creation. From the makers of the show to the animations portraying the characters – all of it is scrutinized by the perception: the likes and dislikes of the male gaze. As a conscientious audience, it also becomes one’s onus to consciously disengage from such content so as to let in altered rhetorics.

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Feature Image Credits: The Dot and Line

Annanya Chaturvedi

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