Love Live: School Idol Festival and Trends That Should Not Be Trending In the Consumption of Cartoons

TW: Discussion of child sexual abuse and child pornography

The other day my friends finally dragged me into idol hell. To some of you, you know exactly what this means. To others, let me introduce you to Love Live School Idol Festival, based off the current popular anime Love Live. I have not watched the anime myself—everything I know is strictly from the game and what other people have told me—but I don’t believe the plot would be that much different. In the anime, nine high school girls band together to create an idol group. Idol Festival takes that plotline and makes it into the most addicting rhythm game ever.

Love Live School Idol Festival GameplayIdol Festival’s game mechanics are, perhaps unsurprisingly, simple. On the screen, a set of nine dots are laid out. As the music plays, the player, in turn, must tap the corresponding circle when they are highlighted: it’s kind of like DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) for your fingers, for lack of a better game to compare it to. You get more points by leveling up your idols; represented by different girls on cards; the usefulness of these cards represented by if they’re canon characters or not. The non-canon characters are there to allow beginners to fill their parties, but will eventually become useless as it’s impossible to reach certain ranks of completion without canon character cards. The idols are then leveled up by “practicing” with other idols (essentially “feeding” other idols to one to make that specific idol stronger), and leveled up even more—to an “idolized” state—when they practice with the same exact card. And… that’s it. It’s a fun tablet game, or computer if you run BlueStacks, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary. However, as I was playing through, unlocking different character stories and just shitting around, I noticed a trend that is also indicative of a worrying cultural shift in cartoon consumption both in Japan and in America.

It's true because it's on the internet!!!!!

It’s true because it’s on the internet!!!!!

Back in the younger, more innocent days of the internet, I remember “squeeing” in glee over the site Bishoujomon (and its offshoot, Bishonenmon): a site that allowed a user, after answering a certain amount of questions correctly, to “capture” a certain favorite character. This, alongside those sites that allowed fangirls and fanboys alike to “marry” their favorite characters, displayed a sort of innocence and was mostly used to show off in your forum signatures which characters were your favorites. Of course it was mostly accepted that no one was actually married to these characters and that such things were silly declarations of our love for fictitious characters that we would never meet outside of a show or a book. Unfortunately, this kind of mindset still exists, but its no longer so innocent. With the passing of time, fans of anime have gone back and forth on whether or not to embrace the term “otaku” (usually interpreted as “mega fan” or “fanatic”), and it seems that the scene as a whole has finally decided that being an otaku is not such a great thing. When even Hayao Miyazaki comes out and reportedly says that “the problem with the anime industry is [that] it’s full of otaku”, one has to take a step back and look and what the underlying reason is. Of course Miyazaki isn’t speaking of fans in general; of course he’s not saying that people who enjoy anime and manga should stop. What he’s speaking of is a growing shamelessness within a small subset of anime fans who have too much power at the moment and are influencing the scene at large. This influence can easily be seen with the popularity of series like Madoka Magica and Love Live, in addition to various other so-called “moe” anime. And the result of this influence is the sexualization of young girls. There has always been a market for sexualized little girls—both in real life pornography (“barely legal teens!” you may have read on an ad on some random-ass website before) and cartoon porn. Anime has the unfortunate reputation of drawing girls who look like they’re twelve, but the artists claim that they’re eighteen or thirty, or something ridiculous like that. However, now more than ever, these sorts of things have been becoming more commonplace in media. No longer are these people shamed into their basements, but instead, they have their tastes catered to. Why? Because these are the audiences that are spending loads of money. We may find comfort in knowing that real-life child pornography will always be illegal, but despite this, according to Thorn (Digital Defender of Children), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children “reviewed 22 million images and videos of suspected child sexual abuse imagery in its victim identification program in 2013—more than a 5000% increase from 2007.” This is a worrying statistic. It is also an entirely American statistic; however, it should be mentioned that Japan just recently revised their laws to outlaw child pornography (except in manga). While real-life child pornography is being cracked down on, conversely, it seems as though animated child/teenage porn is reaching a new zenith, and I think, at least in the anime scene, it has a lot to do with “waifu” culture.

She's fifteen!!!

She’s fifteen!!!

Jokingly, I’m sure you’ve heard the term thrown around—a waifu being a female character that someone, typically male, is a huge fan of. At first glance, this seems close to the aforementioned marrying fictional characters online. However, there’s a huge culture of pornography that surrounds waifu culture, which wouldn’t be a problem if these waifus weren’t largely very young girls. A comparable Western example that many may be familiar with is brony culture. The characters in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic are horses, so it could be argued that their ages are inconsequential: however that is an incredibly narrow, uneducated idea. The show is marketed towards younger girls—or it was supposed to be—and when the ponies turn human in the films, they’re clearly high school age. Though fan measures have been taken to remove porn from the Google image search results (to provide a safer environment for the younger audience), the ravenous and frightening dedication some bronies have for their horse waifus produce hundreds of pieces of pornography depicting the equivalent of a teenage girl. And still, while these specific parts of the fandom are by no means encouraged, bronies themselves are unfortunately the loudest and thus the most heard audience for a show that is not for them: they are the main fan base because they are the ones with the money and can beat out a parent buying toys for their children any day. While bronies are not outrageously catered to, the Japanese otaku are; this can’t be anything but evident with series like Love Live, or at least its game. Every important girl in Idol Festival is a teenager. Every single one. The idol scene in real life isn’t exactly the most squeaky clean thing, I’m aware. However, this game is clearly catered towards the otaku. That the girls are wearing sometimes revealing costumes with strangely seductive faces isn’t anything new, really, but the game constantly reinforces the idea that this is the right way to view younger girl characters (which can have a direct influence on real life perceptions of younger girls). An example of this is when the player unlocks the story of Hitomi Shiga, who is looking for the mightiest armor to fight demons (I don’t get it either…). When what I’m assuming is the player claims to have said armor and gives it to her, she is suddenly dressed in a much shorter, revealing outfit. Furthermore she says this:

Groans loudly in annoyance

*Groans loudly in annoyance* She doesn’t even look happy about it.

Like we need more games reinforcing the idea that less armor for women is somehow just as effective as full plate armor. Additionally, on the home screen for the game, the canon girls you have talk to you. Most of the time they simply say things like “I wonder how rice gets so white” or “we should practice more!” However, if the player clicks on them, they get flustered and start asking about why you touched them, or, one particularly gross line states that if the player touches them, the girl will have to touch them back in retaliation. When your largest audience for the series seems to be men in their twenties, this kind of thing is incredibly skeevy. In the end, however, Love Live‘s situation is something I hope doesn’t cross over to any other country, America or not. Whereas no one debates that MLP: FIM was completely hijacked by an older male audience, Love Live was not. Love Live was created by older men for older men. The manga is published in a seinen serial—a type of manga usually catered towards older teenage boys (or even men as old as their fifties!). Additionally the company that created Love Live, ASCII Media Works, is completely entrenched in the bishoujo game scene. (Bishoujo games being games that star cute young girls, but are designed with a male audience in mind.) This series is clearly made to grab the attention of older men, which any look at the fan events could prove that it does. At this point, companies really need to stop looking at their financial bottom line and start thinking about how the media they put out can adversely affect society. This sort of oogling young girls can only become more normalized as these types of moe anime become more and more popular (is anyone still amazed that OreImo was actually a thing??). While yes, even in-show or in-game this sort of attention the protagonist or player can give to these younger girls is chastised, the chastising is done in such a way as to not insult the player, but rather, gently cajoles them into doing it more. Doing this isn’t a real problem. And that, in an age where children are more at risk than ever to be sexually abused or involved in pornography and sex trafficking, is reprehensible.

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13 thoughts on “Love Live: School Idol Festival and Trends That Should Not Be Trending In the Consumption of Cartoons

  1. Question: Do you find the more blatant sexualization of 2D girls more or less troubling than real-person idol worship? Some say that it’s safer because the subjects of desire aren’t real, (besides their VAs, but that’s a different problem) while others find it enabling of more toxic behavior since there’s less guilt and/or self-awareness of doing harm to a real person.

    Second question: thoughts on the sexualization of boy idols? Teen Wolf smut is still technically smut of underage characters, despite the age of their actors, and otome games (Sadly, it’s kind of telling that both categories are have female names despite opposite gender targetted demographic, with regards to patriarchy) equally focus on young guys.
    I know it’s not equivalent. This is not a “what about teh menz!” Male privilege allows for male idols to keep their careers longer and safely weather more types of scandals than girl idols due to the gender double standard, and the types of attraction emphasized favors different power dynamics. (moe girls look super young and infantilized, moe boys look older than their age and span the range of masculine behavior) In that sense, the sexualization of boys is nowhere near as damaging as the sexualization of girls.
    But I was just wondering, in the context of child abuse and sexualization, your thoughts on if there is anything similar happening with male characters. As far as I can examine, most of the damage comes from reinforcing toxic masculinity, or yet still entrenching female fans further into bad notions about romance, but I was wondering if there would a more direct down-side to a rise in 2D boy idol culture.

    • In response to your first question, I think both are, by this point, so intermingled with each other that in some ways its almost difficult to separate the two. However, I think this depends on how you interpret “idol-worship”. If by the term you mean fans who think that an artist shits gold and will defend them against all criticism, that’s problematic, but less so in my eyes (and a behavior that is much more easily fixed). If we’re talking about the people who become so obsessed over certain artists that they begin to believe that they have a certain right to said artist’s personhood (such as the case concerning SNSD’s Taeyeon where a fan tried to take her off-stage during a performance), then I do believe that’s extremely problematic, but not more or less problematic than the sexualization of 2-D girls. These two different examples are indicative of two different issues, so they’re difficult to compare in terms of which is more problematic.
      A person who stays at home, making no moves on a real person, but is still sexualizing underaged girls may not be hurting a real person, but their viewpoints are still slowly becoming skewed. The severity of the skewed viewpoint depends on the person (such as someone’s tolerance for horror may be after watching a number of horror movies), but there is a desensitization going on there. So, in concerns to your point here I would definitely tend to think of 2D sexualization as more enabling than allowing a person to let their urges out on a “safe” target. In some ways, 2-D fetishization is more dangerous, I think. In terms of culture, at least. People can easily get together online and talk about how hot certain underaged characters are with a modicum of anonymity, these beliefs only reinforced by the fanbase around them; kind of like a black hole. (Of course this isn’t always the case, I realize, but it’s also not an abnormality.) And true, these people can still meet in real life, but there’s a larger sense of culpability there. Even if people getting called out online is much more common than in real life (which I don’t have actual stats for, but it seems to be the case in my experience), that anonymity really allows for the calling to maybe not have as much impact as it would face to face. So I guess to answer your question, I wouldn’t say that either of them are more problematic. Rather, the most problematic thing is being in a culture that doesn’t question these things and instead enables it, whether that culture be society at large or an online message board.

      Your second question brings up a really interesting point, and I’m glad you mentioned it. In terms of sexualizing younger boys, my opinions are the same–which are basically “don’t”. If they’re aged up in a story or artwork, go for it (which is what I also feel for girls or any other gender), but otherwise it should be avoided. Although in terms of shows like Teen Wolf in comparison to shows like Love Live, what they’re “making sexy” is the masculinization or aging up of these characters through visual cues (abs, dominant posture, etc.) rather than infantilization. Which doesn’t excuse the sexualization of young boys, but its a different beast to tackle. (As you mentioned.) As this effects boys in terms of audience and characters, it really only serves to feed the ego of the institutionalized vision of being a man or masculine: which is dangerous especially to those people who don’t want to present like that. However, in cartoons, I think things are actually getting to a point where this precedent is starting to be dismantled. At least in terms of characterization, though in cartoons body image is slowly being worked on as well.
      Otome games I find much less reprehensible in terms of male representation because it’s not the characters themselves that are being idolized, but the situation surrounding them. If we take a series like Starry Sky, an otome game that takes place in high school, the entire point is to fall in love and not to get the object of your affection to fall in love with you–an important distinction I think. While a player may have a certain “type” of boy they’re into, they’re not really fetishized, I think. And while they are portrayed as attractive, they are not portrayed as sexual. The most intense thing you can do in that series is kiss (except maybe in the later installments, but by then I believe you’re college aged). And when a series does get more sexual, like in Amnesia, the characters are (in my experience) always eighteen and up, and the boys do look their age. In my opinion, boys and men are not being hurt by otome games outside of girls maybe expecting something more romantic and fantasized than a boy or romantic prospect may be expecting.
      2-D boy idol culture… mmm… I think it would definitely reinforce some strict gender norms, but I don’t believe it would get as problematic as 2-D girl idol culture, simply because what is desired in each culture is completely different. For girls it’s that powerlessness, that ability to be molded into something “perfect”. For boys, it’s a lot more control and confidence. Of course, idol culture in and of itself is problematic, so we really shouldn’t have any more of it, but yeah, I don’t think it would get to the same levels. Exploitable boys just aren’t as marketable as exploitable girls.

      • >A person who stays at home, making no moves on a real person, but is still sexualizing underaged girls may not be hurting a real person, but their viewpoints are still slowly becoming skewed.

        So if he’s not causing a problem for anyone else, what’s the issue? People have the right to be losers who obsess about fictional girls if they want.

        • The issue is that that person’s skewed viewpoints won’t remain isolated forever. They will lash out against women at some point, whether it be in real life or online, in microaggressions or open misogyny.

          They’re not leaking nude photos of a real-life celebrity, but their online discussions of “my waifu” are just as much reinforcing sexist power strcutures, not just for them, but for the people in the community they’re participating in.

          • Communities full of waifu-obsessed losers who buy body pillows and fuck plastic dolls are, to put it bluntly, composed of the trash of society and they know it. Out in the real world, spending your free time obsessing over anime girls signifies that you are about as much of a loser as it is possible to be. Their power to affect the judgments of society are minimal. Most of these communities actually go out of their way to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Maybe through sheer insensitivity the whole thing might contribute to micro-aggressions but most people involved – the ones who aren’t suffering from actual mental problems, anyway – are able to mentally separate fiction from reality (2D from 3D).

            How is suppressing material like Love Live! School Idol Festival actually supposed to combat sex trafficking? The people obsessing about their “waifus” are about as likely to engage in actual sex trafficking or child molestation as people who play Counterstrike are to blow up a mall. Most of them probably won’t approach a real girl in their lives.

  2. This is why I’m so ambivalent about whether to continue reading Negima. It’s *chock-full* of over-sexualization of middle school girls, including gratuitous scenes in which they regularly lose their clothes for no good reason. >.<

  3. Love Live’s situation has already crossed over here in the states if the popularity of Madoka, Haruhi, and Kill la Kill are anything to go by. Heck, it’s the reason why Skullgirls was born.

  4. An excellent post–I’m also in Idol Hell at current (it’s a good time waster and has actually improved my reflexes quite a bit, haha) and while I enjoy some of the cutesey aspects of the main characters the way you would any piece of moe fluff about schoolgirls being friends, I can’t help but feel most of the time that I am not the target audience and a lot of the stories are written and drawn directly for male wish fulfilment the same way dating sims are. I didn’t sign up for this, darn it. I feel like it contributes to a culture of making things about young women that aren’t FOR young women, and for older men instead, and that’s pretty creepy even without considering it takes what could have been a safe, fun fictional space for them and turns it into a sexualised mess of fan pandering instead.

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  6. Hi 😀

    It seems to me that you’ve framed the consumption of “moe” anime as a primarily sexual one, which I find a little disingenuous as I am sure there significant segments of the audience who would think otherwise. Additionally, people will have different reasons for having waifus, and not all of them will be rooted in insecurity or misogyny. This also banks on the assumption that otaku inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. I find the more problematic parts of moe anime is more the risk of them becoming Hikikomori, practical hermits unable to live normal lives. Personally, i’m just uncomfortable with the use of blanket statements.

    It might have been just a slight oversight, but Japan revised their law to included possession of Child pornography as illegal, as the production and distribution of child pornography has been illegal for a long time.

    I will not debate to what degree media affects human behavior, since it can vary from none at all to very much depending on which study you look at. I will also not disagree that there problematic portions regarding sexualization, as you mentioned with Hitomi Shiga and the vaguely sexual dialogue of the main characters on the main screen. I just find it massive stretch that the consumption of the media similar to Love Live will somehow lead to a causal link to the consumption of child pornography/abuse/trafficking. it runs the a very similar argument as the whole video games cause violence debate.

    Even though the “otaku”are catered to by the industry, the greater anime culture and mainstream Japanese culture still distance themselves from them. By bearing down on the otaku, it is possible that they will just continue to isolate themselves further and thus forcing their tastes farther from the mainstream?

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