Female Stereotype Reversal in Miyazaki’s Films
Most writers discuss the Shoujo and coming of age when analyzing Miyazaki’s animated films, but there is another type of woman that is focused on that is portrayed as strong in mind and body. These characteristics are frequently shown in important roles, such as Lady Eboshi and the women of Tatara in Princess Mononoke, Lin and Zeniba in Spirited Away, Sosuke’s mother in Ponyo, and Osono the shop owner in Kiki’s Delivery Service. These features are also drastically different compared to the female characters in Disney films, which are not as strong or complex in personality. Female stereotypes of being submissive and quiet are purposely reversed in Miyazaki’s films to bring depth, uniqueness, and admiration to the characters.
Stereotypes and expectations of the typical Japanese woman would assume that she is quiet, submissive, focuses on raising the family, and only works small jobs for a short period of time. This follows what is known as the “M Curve”, a graph that explains the average life in the workforce for a Japanese woman. It is shaped like an M because it “dips around the years when they marry and bear children; after that it recovers” (“Holding Back Half the Nation”). As Susan Napier mentions in her book Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki purposely created strong female characters that “undermine the traditional Japanese conventions” by possessing a “gender-neutral, or at least deeply ambiguous, characterization compared to traditional female stereotypes, [that] remain completely outside the misogynistic patriarchal collectivity that rapidly became the foundation of premodern Japan (Napier, 182). This is important because these women can influence young female viewers to aspire beyond a life that revolves around the “M curve” and show them how to be strong and independent. It is rare to find a adult female character in the Ghibli films that are confined to Japanese conventions. Rather, you will see the women of Tatara doing hard work that even Ashitaka struggled at doing; Lady Eboshi leading Tatara and using her power to help mankind; San envisioned as a “wild child”; Osono running her own store while pregnant; and Sosuke’s mother working hard as a single parent (Arai). What you do not see is the “sexualization of girls, their need to be rescued by boys, or any inferiority that is present in so many other films” (Schmidt). Lady Eboshi is a prime example of this because “she successfully challenges the male dominance directly. Rather than rebelling against expectations and norms, like the wildfire of San’s characterization, she simply takes on the male power structure for her own. She leads her people, and projects and provides” (Cookson). Even though Miyazaki was raised under Japan’s traditional conventions, he has created women that are anything but the historically oppressive nature that frame Japanese women, and instead “represents women like men are represented” (Hoff Kraemer; Cookson).
Following the nature of the female characters is the risky choice of featuring them as main or important characters. In fact, out of “Miyazaki’s 13 movies, nine feature a female central protagonist, often as the titular character… Miyazaki’s films feature gender-balanced casts where women exist both as heroes and villains, and characters in either role have nuances and depth” (White). The wide success of Ghibli films could be associated with how well they pass the Bechdel test; which rates films on if they feature two or more women, if the women talk to each other, and if the subject of what they talk about is on something other than men (Bechdel). Passing the Bechdel test matters because a study done by FiveThirtyEight “found that movies that pass the Bechdel test see a great return on investment at the box office” and also helps reverse trends set in Hollywood of male dominant characters (Maya). All of Ghibli’s films, except for Porco Rosso, managed to pass with flying colors. However, Porco Rosso still features strong female characters that build Porco’s plane. If we compare Ghibli films to Hollywood films, the difference will be notable with “women [accounting] for only 15 percent of protagonists, 29 percent of major characters and 30 percent of all speaking characters last year (2013)” (Dockterman). Although recent Disney films with more independent females than in past movies have passed the Bechdel test, the content of which they are based on is dubious because every Disney film with a female protagonist focuses on love and marriage while Ghibli “generally avoids stories that end in marriage or even romantic alliance between the heroine and hero” (Lamarre, 83). The success of the Bechdel test is proven by how well Miyazaki’s movies have fared in Japan with four of his movies, all featuring female protagonists, in the top 10 highest grossing films in Japan’s history (Mr. Heartbreaker). As Napier simply puts it, “using a male character in replacement would be less interesting” (Napier, 184-185).
One idea that was brought up questioned whether Miyazaki’s reversal of general female stereotypes created another type of stereotype. Miyazaki films almost never feature just one stock female personality type and none of them are really extreme personalities either. There was always an array and it felt natural and normal, closer to real world women. In the western world and much of the major cities in Japan, there’s already the archetype of successful, independent women. Miyazaki is influenced by the women around him, most notably his wife and daughters, for the characteristics in the female roles that stand out and are admirable. It has been said about Miyazaki that he wants a “heroine who positively faces difficult situations. [He does] not like ornamental heroines or women who ask for help by screaming or wash away in the ocean waves when there is no need to go swimming. If a heroine has a steadfast inner quality that never yields to any threatening situations protecting her, then that will lead to protection of human respect and will justify the reason for a main character to fight with his or her might” (Nippon Special Interview). Miyazaki has not created a stereotype, but rather females with varied strengths who know how to be true to themselves when in the midst of difficult situations. These traits are often seen as masculine, which leads to the thought that perhaps his goal was to make the genders neutral. When observing the male protagonists in the movies, such as Ashitaka and Haku, they often show vulnerability and sensitivity.
Another point our group realized about most of these strong female characters is that they help guide the Shoujo through their transformation. Osono takes Kiki in and helps her discover her skill, Lin guides Chihiro around the bathhouse and Zeniba directs her in the path to saving Haku and Chihiro’s parents, Sosuke’s mother takes Ponyo in and feeds her, and Obaba Hisako predicting Nausicaa’s future of saving her people from evil. These “heroines have some exceptional potential as feminist figures in ways that Western leading ladies often don’t” and show the Shoujo how to become the strong and independent women that they are (White). The women in Ghibli films also teach viewers to surround themselves with strong people to look up to, because most young girls “have no one to look up to except the Love Interest and the Plucky but Inferior Sidekick — the two token roles that women are given in most films” (Schmidt). If anything, Miyazaki shows the transitions of women between the Shoujo, coming of age, and how they turn out when they are older and wiser.
If you are interested in reading the rest of the paper or the presentation, please contact me and I will send you the link. For this paper, I chose not to focus on Miyazaki’s other films with male protagonists, like The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachi Nu), because they are not his original plot and are based on true stories. Please give constructive criticism below if you are willing. Arigatou Gozaimasu!
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