Moe, Maturity and Reading Like a Man: Beneath the Surface of Shirobako

An anime about making anime and celebrating the industry wins multiple awards from the industry. Passing comments might be skeptical of how self-centered the anime business has become. But those who have watched Shirobako know well how deeply it deserves its accolades. It’s a coming-of-age story that abandons the typical high school setting, but retains the moe aesthetic for its femicentic main cast. Combining the realistic struggles of a workplace with the hyperreal glaze of cute girls and boundless enthusiasm, it’s got both reality and moe firmly in its heart, and comments often on how the two conflict and co-operate in various capacities.

The success of Shirobako has however attracted a lot of attention from critics seeking to downplay its value for women, affirm the lie of ‘anime is a boys club’ to fabricate outrage, and use the show as a platform for continuing the anti-moe sentiment permeating much of our Western community. This trend can be seen coming to a head at the end of I Have a Heroine Problem’s otherwise fantastic article on body diversity in anime, where the show’s moe aesthetic is denounced as being a reminder of the industry’s patriarchal leanings, and ill-fitting to the story as a whole:

[…] the one series where the lack of body diversity always bothers me is Shirobako, because it is otherwise such a rare treat.

Shirobako gained critical acclaim when it premiered for its wonderful depiction of a group of fully-grown women working in the anime industry. The women are intelligent and competent, and their career struggles are sympathetic and believable, such as an animator having difficulty making ends meet or a producer covering for her thoughtless colleague. Much of the male secondary cast is based on real people, allowing for unusually realistic character designs. The side-by-side comparisons are incredible, and it’s fun to watch and see how these individuals’ personalities and passions have made the world of Shirobako simultaneously colorful and completely believable.

Too bad the main female cast all have identical infantilized same-faces!

The show handles everything else so masterfully, so it creates an odd disconnect with the female character designs. It doesn’t ruin the series by any means, but it is distracting and takes away from the narrative of capable adult women breaking into a tough, competitive industry. Instead, it carries the nasty reminder that anime production remains a boys’ club. If a female character doesn’t sell models and other fanservicey merchandise, no matter how much a viewer may relate to her or even look up to her, she is worthless from the studio’s point of view. “Don’t lie to yourself,” it whispers to me. “This is not for you.” Their lives may not revolve around men, but their existence does.

So much is extrapolated from a glance at the surface of Shirobako: we go from ‘they’re moe’ to ‘the patriarchy’ in a flash, and a ‘disconnect’ is noted without any explication of what that disconnect is, aside from furthermore superficial remarks of ‘their characters are mature and their designs are not’, alongside ‘the male characters’ designs are mature’. The complaint of Caitlin, the blogger at I Have a Heroine Problem, is simple: why are the mature women drawn as children, while the adult men are drawn as adults?

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Without addressing the show in any more detail, it’s easy to then go off on one about the wider ‘problems’ of the anime industry; the assumption that cute girls are made by a patriarchy for a patriarchy. We get quickly carried away when we assert that ‘everything else’ is fine: that the choice to adopt moe itself is inherently (grabs a sick bucket) ‘problematic’. The assumption is made that the aesthetic was simply chosen for merchandising, and that that takes away from the humanity of these characters by reminding us that they’re to be objectified into, well, objects of merchandise for male consumers. The horror!

All of this is done at a glance: but what happens when we interrogate what Shirobako itself has to say about moe and its girls? For a show about anime production, one should assume the story has some comments to make about its own designs, and as we draw connections between the artificial level of the story – what the characters were ‘made’ to be – and the narrative level of its characters – what these figures are written to be thinking, desiring, saying and doing – we start to see a very different ‘reminder’ constructed in Shirobako: a warning against the very kind of criticism Caitlin attacks the show with.

We need to begin by reminding ourselves what moe represents, and how it’s typically consumed. Much of the appeal of moe comes from its affinity to the high school setting: in vying to ‘become’ the moe girl perceived on-screen, a post-adolescent viewer vies to return to a period of carefree happiness, which they may not have had a full realization of in their own life. Adolescent viewers may likewise see a moe girls’ lifeworld as a superior version of their own. It’s a case of hyperreality: while the history of moe can be traced in Japanese aesthetics, there is no ‘origin’ considered by the viewer. Moe is accessed as a hyperreal plane – a simulacrum – and it operates as a space where vulnerability is accepted, and women lead the way.

Shirobako’s lead women indeed all have similar ‘moe’ faces, and they embody many other aspects of moe too: Miyamori’s clumsiness comes through frequently. Ema’s shyness is incredibly endearing. Midori’s boundless enthusiasm, shared among all the girls but most prominent in her, speaks of the youthful enthusiasm one can easily lose when further into their working life, a point Digibro stresses in a recent video on why we have so many high schools in anime. These facets are enjoyable and praiseworthy regardless of gender, but it’s indeed noteworthy that the male side of the show’s cast don’t embody moe in aesthetic and behaviour. Tarou is the bugbear employee we’re invited to scorn instead of adore, which Hiraoka’s jaded cynicism colours the show’s second cour with much more realism than hyperrealism. The older men likewise don’t share many of the traits we’d associate with moe, aside from what could be understood as an infantile enthusiasm; noticing a gendered imbalance is unavoidable.

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But what exactly is the imbalance? In all the discussion of Shirobako’s main cast being ‘adults’, Caitlin forgets that they’ve only recently left school – one of them, even, is still there. Surely they’ve mostly all passed the age of majority in Japan and had their ‘coming of age’, but the story is about them being in a transitional period from the carefree space of high school into the rigors of the adult world. They take this at different strides: while Midori writes her way into the industry while still in post-secondary education, Miyamori above all others struggles to understand where she’s going in this new, adult world, and that challenge continues until the story’s climax, as her speech to the company embodies all the maturity and confidence she’s gained from the start of this series. Like every coming of age story, Shirobako is not about being mature, but becoming mature, and the start point is the fresh-out-of-school vibe their infantile faces give us by echoing the high school moe spirit.

What we see is these girls combining the carefree enthusiasm of moe with the maturity they’re demanded to grow in the workplace. After only a couple of projects, Ema has begun to flourish as a key animator with confidence and talent, Misa has chosen her own path rather than let the industry pull her around and deny her dream, and Shizuka lands a VA role and is ready to step into it because of giving her all in an audition even against the most professional women in her field. What these girls prove is that you can be both moe and mature; to draw upon a Bahktinian understanding of art, these two characteristics are not synthesized in a monologic or dialectic discourse – it’s not a competition between one and the other. The girls stay moe at the very end, while also having grown greatly and quickly in maturity: it’s dialogic at its core, asserting that the two can co-exist without one swallowing the other. Rejecting the idea that they can is rejecting the very ethos of the story, and the dialogic imagination of many modern animators and writers that prove how staying young and growing up aren’t mutually exclusive goals in the slightest.

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But what of the adult men that have been here so much longer than them? So many of the conflicts of the story are incited between men who come to act very much like children. Many of them have a youthful passion for their media, and this comes to a head early in the series in a fight between 2D animation and 3D CGI. Rather than co-operate, these veterans of their fields get loud and proud and then try to go their separate and stubborn ways. It takes Miyamori’s ingenuity as a production assistant to get them to work together again. Let’s review: it takes a newbie, this moe girl, still struggling to develop maturity in her work, to get mature men to work together.

It’s hardly an isolated incident. Hiraoka acts incredibly childish when he gets into a literal fight with a superior, episode director Hironori Madoka, over an issue that the fault of his own neglect and expedience. His gradual transformation over the show’s second cour is largely due to Miyamori and Erkia confronting him with a professionalism he lacks. Once again, it’s the moe girls telling the men how to do their jobs! Even as Segawa is ready to wash her hands of Hiraoka, it’s Miyamori who continues to have faith in him, nurturing him through her trust into someone who’s able to care about their work enough to not hold the company back.

Tarou is no stranger to childish behaviour either. He’s sloppy like Hiraoka with his work, and that makes men and women alike have to pick up the pieces – but Miyamori most of all. Miyamori not only supersedes him in a professional regard, but also in terms of her outlook on women. In the very first episode, when Miyamori meets with Segawa, we’re given a shot from Miyamori’s perspective which highlights the scale of the animator’s chest. In response Miyamori comically marvels at this herself; Tarou, on the other hand, is seen later making demeaning remarks about the animator and her chest size. It’s unavoidable that we notice she has a large chest, as we notice, unavoidably, in real life that some women have large chests.

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What Shirobako asks is simple – how do we respond? Miyamori’s option is the classic coming-of-age topos that we see also in Hibike! Euphonium, where a girl’s worries of maturity are paralleled to worries about chest size. Tarou’s option is what we would typically term ‘the male gaze’; seeing breasts as elements of a women for pleasure, and divorcing them from the narrative context that the coming-of-age topos in this instance renders them as. When first watching Shirobako Amelia Cook, writer for AnimeFeminist, chose to side with Tarou and ignore the story’s wider denouncement of such a ‘male gaze’ perspective. She chose to silence the agency of Miyamori that was written into the show, a female voice that criticizes the childish ‘wow boobs!’ option we’re offered as viewers. There’s a typical text of maturity in that scene, but Tarou is understandably ignorant of it. But why would feminist critics assert that the primary reading of the scene is Tarou’s, and not Miyamori’s? Why have critics been trained to be ‘triggered’ by certain camera angles and ignore what characters might have to say about them?

Even if one believes Miyamori is the minority, why aren’t we emphasizing her perspective – not as something to further add to the titillation of a ‘typical’ male viewer, but in acceptance of the sincerity of Miyamori’s character narrative? What are we doing – shaming the idea of having big breasts? Should women with big breasts feel bad about men looking at them lustfully? No. Should we be asserting that fictional women and their writers should tread around the eggshells of the male gaze that Tarou represents? Neither! ‘Screw them!’ says Shirobako; but Amelia lets them dominate her viewing experience. It’s again ironic that the most mature perspective in this scene comes from a girl with an infantilized design; a perspective Amelia has ignored. It’s true that some people are looking at scenes with as minimal fanservice as this in a lustful and agency-limiting way – but we as critics shouldn’t be so silly ourselves. We should notice that there’s a better perspective that’s encouraged.

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We can perceive a greater trend through these ‘childish’ traits that men in the show portray at times. If moe is a pseudo-parental perspective that seeks to protect and praise positive aspects of children – cuteness, freedom, enthusiasm – towards the show’s men we have another pseudo-parental perspective that criticizes negative aspects in children – an inability to resolve disagreements, foremost. In a grand gesture of irony, the show places its moe girls at the center of the ‘parenting’ of adult men that end up acting like children; they don’t revolve around men – it’s the men that revolve around the moe women!

A good microcosm of this can be seen in Erika’s authority over Masahiro Ookura as he continually tries to childishly crawl out of the studio and his responsibilities. Do we ever see the girls of the show shirk from their responsibilities? No; that’s a faculty of  Shirobako’s men. The gender imbalance is purposeful and far more dynamic than Caitlin accepts: the show comes to suggest that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, or a girl by her face. The moe girls are the ones who have to pick up the pieces from the adult mens’ childish behaviour. The childish traits of the main girls are benign: they’re both youthful and hard-working. We may remember fondly in K-On! that while Yui’s lounging-around is cute, it’s her rising passion for music that’s the most endearing.

Image result for yui kon

And doesn’t this remind us of another comment from Hiraoka within the show? As Midori’s busy getting more and more comfortable at MusAni, at one point he remarks to her that she’s only doing well because she’s a cute face. Textbook misogyny. But how is this not the same misogyny being thrust at the show when we say it’s a problem that these girls are cute and childish on the surface? Of course Shirobako rejects Hiraoka’s comments as usual; but in doing so it also rejects Cailtin’s notion that these characters’ moe aesthetic distracts or detracts from the value they have. The surface is to be put in conversation with what’s underneath. We know from watching Shirobako that Ema’s success is due to her hard work and not her cute face. We know likewise, as we’ve explored above, that its characters’ moe designs are there to offer an ironic contrast between moe and maturity, and highlight the rise of the former while these girls remain in the space of nostalgic youth, and the lack of the latter in the most ‘mature’ members of staff at MusAni.

In the end we discover that it’s partly overt pandering to a male demographic through fanservice and that got Hiraoka so jaded in the first place, just as it pushes many women away from appreciating anime. But Miyamori’s authoritative voice, which comes to parallel with the show’s implied author, get him back in line, and helps affirm that the way we see women, in life and in anime, shouldn’t be marginalized just because some other shows exploit fanservice to a gross extent. Else, the show would have sided with Hiraoka’s dead end cynicism. But no: it says, ‘we can do better’. Likewise, Shirobako’s moe shouldn’t be stigmatized because it’s a ‘reminder’ of some more explicitly male-centric moe shows that are demeaning to women. We should be evaluating how this show talks about women in the anime industry and puts that in conversation with a moe representation of many of them, and not assuming that a monolithic preconception of the state of the industry has done all that criticism for us. We should welcome thoughts on how moe is handled differently, for better or worse, across different shows. We should be realizing how Shirbako does it better.

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Following on from this, it’s curious to note, in Caitlin’s own words in responding to one of her article’s comments, that:

Kyoto Animation, the studio best known for its moe productions, also trains and employees the highest concentration of female talent of any studio.

But the fact is ignored  rather than given interest. We can draw a number of conclusions from the number of women behind the wheel when it comes to moe productions: particularly that these women likely do not see moe as belittling to women as many Western critics, and moreover that they want to be in charge of how their gender is portrayed in the hyperreal plane that moe occupies.

As a show that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, Shirobako encapsulates these notions well; the voice for how we are asked to view these ‘infantilized’ women is given to its women, which overcomes the typical voice that’s ascribed to men. Stopping at the fact that the characters are infantilized and judging them on their surface is the voice of the show ascribed to men. This means that Caitlyn and Amelia are effectively reading the show and its moe aesthetic like men, instead of through the women’s perspective offered in contrary to the demeaning and insulting comments on female beauty given by the story’s two adolescent male characters.(1)

They’ve ignored the female voice with the pretense that it is ignored by the inclusion of the male otaku viewership topos: the childish faces here, a camera focusing for a second on tits there. But these things only imply a readership limiting of women so that the show’s women can criticize exactly that outlook. In ignoring the female voice within the show, critics are ignoring their own female voice: their potential to say ‘no. Don’t look at it that way. Don’t look at us this way. Look at it this way. Look at us this way’. Japanese feminists like Kotani Mari, and canonical Western feminists like Martha Nussbaum,  have taught me so much about this approach, about how women can assert the right and wrong ways to look at something like moe, and can gain control of the discourse of the perception of their bodies and their selfhood. Many Western feminists are sorely lagging behind, still clinging to the ideal that one element of a show only speaks of one way of viewing it. They only further facilitate the ‘wrong’ perspective by saying it’s the only perspective.

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A good example of this within the show is Ai’s response to Hiraoka’s view on how pointless it is to put effort into moe anime, that sakuga has no real value in such a ‘pandering’ medium and genre. This closely resembles the anti-moe sentiment of many critics, who believe that every show is more ‘artistic’ when it avoids moe and goes for a more ‘mature’ style. Rather than accept this at all, the show gives us Ai’s response – going to a sick Ema and encouraging her, and Ema responds with encouraging comments to Ai. The most vulnerable, the most adorable, the most infantile – the most moe – voices in the show end up being the ones that stand up for the passion of anime’s female creators, while the male voice is discarded as being detrimental to the identity of anime as art. Like Ai, we shouldn’t be embracing Hiraoka’s perspective at all. We should be encouraging women creators to create whatever they want, and ignore those who think there’s no artistry to the moe girls they animate.

Our discussion of moe shouldn’t be giving primacy to a demeaning outlook, or limiting the aesthetic to a monolithic implied perspective; all viewerships are far more complex than what the labels slapped on them suggest. We can shape how moe is seen by encouraging viewers to be critical of everything they see, and listen to every voice the show has to offer, before passing judgement on what kind of readership it comes to embrace. Often we should be putting a female voice, where it arises, in charge of how moe is to be best understood, to maximize the agency of its characterization across the board.

That female voice can’t completely discount the aesthetic without marginalizing a sizeable proportion of its gender; a woman can’t say it’s fundamentally ‘wrong’ for other women to choose to act cute and endearing in order to control male affection. So we ought to be criticizing the wrong way to look at moe, and finding the best feminist light we can cast on its representations. While some moe shows allow little room for alternative perspectives and should therefore be rightly criticized for being reductive to their characters (God dammit Rewrite), shows like Shirobako have such penetrating female gazes written into their very narratives. But these ideas are being sorely ignored for the sake of the easy, lazy ‘criticism’ of moe that appeals to viewers who never sought to understand it or its lifeworld and just want it out of their media so they never have to.

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Part of the whole point of Shirobako therefore comes to rest on the assertion that anime is not a ‘boys club’, and that moe isn’t either; or at least, it doesn’t have to be, and is only being seen that way because we keep affirming it as such. The superficial can’t take away from the strength of women, and anyone who tries to make it do so, in the name of ‘feminism’, is polluting the discourse around their media with the exact perspectives they criticize. We only get further and further away from helping people understand how inclusive the moe lifeworld is, by pretending girls are only given cute faces to sell merch.

The call for ‘diversity’ of female appearances in anime can’t devolve into the outcry against one variety of appearance in a story that uses it for such complex and empowering messages towards women. You are not valued by your face, and neither should characters in fiction be. We need to think beyond surfaces and camera angles – else, as our deconstruction of one Mary Sue article has shown before, we’re the ones objectifying these girls. We’re the ones denying them a voice, and denying the show a female voice, and denying our own female voice in the process.

Image result for shirobako ai ema

(1) This notion of feminists reading stories ‘like a man’ is nothing new: Jill Mann has an exceptional evaluation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in her book ‘Feminizing Chaucer’ that reviews what it means to ‘read like a man’ and ‘read like a women’ in concordance with how a text constructs gendered perceptions. Modern feminism often seems to assert that the only ‘woman’s way’ of reading a story written for men is to continually decry the masculine reader found within it and conflate that with decrying the story itself for including it. That preoccupation with the implied masculine is detrimental to narratives that offer a way to ‘read like a woman’ through and among the tropes traditionally ascribed to a ‘man’s’ way of reading, and ends up only helping to construct the very ‘patriarchy’ one is opposed to, by ignoring the potential for a different voice and way of reading woven into the text.


5 thoughts on “Moe, Maturity and Reading Like a Man: Beneath the Surface of Shirobako”

  1. Excellent post! To be honest, I’m not very fond of Shirobako’s moe art style, but I’m not too fond of the moe art style in general. It’s just my personal taste. I enjoyed this show and I like how it illuminates the challenges many anime creators face. It has a similar feel to seiyuu series “Sore ga Seiyuu”—which has this moe cutesy art style too—but I daresay that Shirobako feels more “adult”. I get what the critics are saying, but I think that they’re looking for faults too much. Oh well. I like “Bakuman” more than “Shirobako”, but I’m dismayed by the people who downplay its good points and try turning them into bad points. Anyway, once again excellent post. Keep up the great work. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for Shirobako, I would say that looking at shows in general there tends to be less diversity in female designs than male ones. I’m not quite sure why this is though. There are fewer outright ugly women in median than men, but if you were to compare harems targeted at men and women the male characters are actually more homogenous. If it isn’t just a grab for male sexuality, what is it?

    Female harems:

    Male harems:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s noteworthy: hyperreality has evidently hit heterosexual male otaku more than any other market. But this is easily conflated with the assumption that otaku are being taught to believe ‘all women are the same’. The Japanese distinction between reality and fiction is a bit different from what our Western world has cultured us into thinking of as the only way. Uusally otaku that fantasize about having maid waifus would never want a real gf to become their maid. Likewise for how they see women in their fiction: they like the congruence because they already see the girls as virtual and as ‘objects’ in the first place, and this is actively distinguished from women in the ‘real world’.

      I think, rather than ask moe shows to be more diverse with female designs, we should just be encouraging the industry to make more things that aren’t moe shows. Not denounce the moe market – just keep affirming that there are other (masculine) markets to be milked. For an audience that isn’t coming for hyperreality, you’ll get a greater diversity from the usual and identifiable tropes. Whether a large enough alternative audience of anime to the normative otaku exists in Japan is another question, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In the criticism of Shirobako for its moe aesthetic, we see how Western anime criticism’s desperate crusade to destroy moe by denouncing it at every turn has ruined the discourse surrounding anime. I remember writing an article a couple years ago about why we see “discussion” of some anime but not others, and this is that exact dynamic at work.

    Western anime criticism has an obsession with superficial qualities of anime. “Does it have fanservice? Well then it’s garbage.” “Does it focus on cute girls? It’s obviously misogynistic.” “Does it use a nonstandard aesthetic? That’s how you know it’s art!”

    So it’s no surprise to me when a critic fails to give a show with a moe aesthetic a fair shake. To do otherwise, to actually break the show down and genuinely figure out what it’s trying to do, would be to go against the well-established critical perspective of “moe is sexist, moe is misogynistic, moe is pedophilic.” Any critic looking for legitimacy among established circles of anime criticism can’t go too hard against the established Western paradigm about moe.

    The reluctance to realistically investigate moe is how we end up with the criticism of Shirobako’s female cast having “same-faces.” If critics were genuinely interested in criticism, they’d be able to notice subtleties. It’s easy to take one screenshot and make jokes about the show having a cast of quintuplets, but there are facial subtleties that speak to character personality: Not just facial structure, but eyebrows, eye shame, and expressive tendencies all speak to a character’s personality, but we can’t talk about that while so laser-focused on shutting down moe all the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Moe has become a meaningless term. This character is moe, this trait is moe, this style is moe, this show is moe–or moeshit if you disapprove of them. In either case the term has no discernible meaning. I have no idea what you mean by it in this article, and I had no idea what it meant in Shirobako. The term obscures rather than aids understanding. Instead of looking at things as they are, they are given meaningless labels like moe, fujoshi, fanservice, shounen, harem, sameface, infantilized, modern anime, otaku, cute girls doing cute things, slice of life, and light novel. This isn’t just a mild annoyance, it’s a serious problem. People bury anime beneath so many layers of abstraction that they become the only thing they can see.

    The only definition of moe that I recognize as valid is a feeling of euphoria, excitement, love, or infatuation caused by a character–any character (I could for example say that I feel moe towards Yoichi from Drifters, but he–yes, he–has nothing to do with stereotyped “moeshit” characters like Yui). That’s what the term originally meant, by all accounts. It’s not a necessary or even particularly useful term, but at least it’s not vague, misleading, didactic and/or stigmatizing.

    It’s baffling that Heroine Problem’s author thinks Shirobako has “the narrative of capable adult women breaking into a tough, competitive industry,” and that “anime production remains a boys’ club,” when Shirobako itself had women as the animation director, lead writer, and episode writers, among other positions. Women are not an oddity in the industry, or strangers to prominent positions (Yuuri on Ice is headed by women and is one of the most ambitious productions this season).

    She also makes several false assumptions: that there’s necessarily something “fanservicey” about character merchandise (most of it just the characters in their signature outfits, like the Alter figure of Ema at work); that male fans only care about ecchi; that female fans don’t like ecchi (see, again, Yuuri on Ice); that female fans don’t like cute or sexy female characters; that all anime, manga, doujinshi, games and light novels featuring ecchi and/or cute or sexy female characters are conceived exclusively by men; and that studios are necessarily in charge of what characters look like, or that they are designed by some kind of marketing team. Unfortunately these are not uncommon assumptions.

    But the core of her post is just the typical, cancerous, narcissistic feminist crusade against men looking at attractive females, whether those females are real or not. She has buried anime beneath the abstraction layer of feminism.

    This comment of yours is very strange: “Women can assert the right and wrong ways to look at something like moe, and can gain control of the discourse of the perception of their bodies and their selfhood.” Women don’t have any authority over female anime characters and how they are portrayed. Female characters don’t represent women and women don’t represent them. Women are also not a hivemind, as evidenced among other things by how differently Western and Japanese women view anime. You seem to agree in other parts of the post, but this sentence seems to just say that “women” must gain control over the discourse and dictate how things should be.


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