Gender is a topic in animation circles that is gaining more traction lately mainly thanks to a growing realisation that for all the talk of an industry that has less sever gender segregation and under representation than live-action, it's still a heavily male-dominated industry. That translates into the programming and associated merchandise so easily that it's long been simply taken for granted. In recent years, the problem has attracted more attention as viewers, consumer groups and activists look to balance the equation for women and females in animation. For an example of a possible fix, we turn to the east, and the hit anime show Attack on Titan.
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An article by Kris Ligman on Medium a few weeks ago caught my eye and proved to be a very interesting read for someone who is not familiar with Attack on Titan in either manga or anime form. What Ligman details is how the US publisher of the manga (Kodansha) erred during the translation process and inadvertently applied a gender label to the main character Hange (Hanji) Zoe. A mistake they quickly corrected.
While that in and of itself was notable news, what is relevant regarding this post is that the manga's author (Hajime Isayama) specifically went out of their way to avoid labelling the character. In other words, they wanted it left as ambiguous as possible.
Here in the west, that presents some unique challenges, especially as far as language goes, but the more important thing to consider is that the discussion and debate surrounding Zoe has been more about their lack of a gender identity rather than identifying gender characteristics. In other words, the character themselves is not the subject of debate so much as their lack of a gender.
Setting that aside for the moment, this does offer an opportunity to look at just how important gender is to a show and its characters. Gender definition has roots deep within the history of civilisation that have naturally progressed and evolved just as we have, but what is interesting is that it also permeate throughout entertainment of all kinds.
As adults, that is easy to understand, process, and filter, but the problem is that plenty of content (both live-action and animated, TV show and features alike) place too much emphasis on gender being a defining characteristic. Girls are ditzy, boys are strong, etc.
In the real world. gender roles do exist, but only to a certain extent of what defines a person. Fictional content always portrays an over-the-top or false version of reality and gender roles are no exception, but they have also been proven to have a direct impact on public opinion and behaviours. The best example is public opinion towards homosexuals, which has been altered greatly over the past 20 years as a direct result of TV shows like Will & Grace (sorry, can't locate the original link.)
This isn't to belabour a point, but rather to show that the existing and continued emphasis on gender really does affect the perception of a character. To come back to Zoe, it is not the lack of gender identifiers that is the real topic worth of discussion, but rather that the character themselves does not suffer (or gain) because of it. Zoe is still a character with all the usual traits of the kind I discussed just the other day.
If they can perform and operate as a character just fine, shouldn't others be able to as well, even if, unlike Zoe, they do have a defined gender?