Dissecting Kill la Kill Part 2: Feminism
by Andrew Erickson
Hey, kids, do you like fanservice? Statistically, some of you must or they wouldn’t keep making it. You don’t have to speak up; I already know and am silently judging you.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to use words like “problematic” or “gross” or whatever the chic euphemism for wrongthink is at the moment. I’m not interested in calling for censorship or bans; my aim here is to take a look at fanservice apologetics. Specifically, I’m talking about the argument that fanservice is really about female empowerment. It’s a line I’ve seen trotted out several times regarding Kill la Kill and figured I’d address it early on.
Articles like Kill la Kill: Incredibly Sexist or Incredibly Feminist greatly emphasize the third episode, and especially Satsuki Kiryuin’s line, “The fact that you are embarrassed by the values of the masses only proves how small you are… My actions are utterly pure!” So let’s take a look at the third episode, particularly the climactic fight between Ryuko and Satsuki.
For most of the fight, Ryuko is hopelessly outmatched, finally learning that her uniform is less powerful than Satsuki’s because her embarrassment is causing her to reject it. Losing her sense of shame allows her to fight back on an even footing. From this, the show’s defenders have extrapolated an entire theme of liberating women from societal expectations. It makes enough sense as long as the viewer tightens their focus to this one scene, to the exclusion of the rest of the series. Remember, the first scene of the first episode is about fascism, and immediately after the fight ends, Ryuko starts talking about Satuski’s ambition. The point of her line about “the values of the masses” is that she sees herself as unanswerable to anyone, not that slut-shaming is wrong. The point of Satsuki as a character (for the first half of the series, at least) is that she’s completely amoral and will do anything for power. That in this one instance her lust for power means stripping down to a supercharged bikini is incidental.
This is where fans of the show might interject, “but it’s empowering that she doesn’t care what society thinks of her! The theme conveyed by the fanservice uniforms is to show that women should think of themselves as individuals and not allow themselves to be ashamed by the values of others.” In which case it seems like a strange bit of misdirection for the show to give various male characters their own suits that don’t have any sort of social message. One character – Gamagoori – has a suit powered by masochism, but he doesn’t have an inner struggle about it and there’s no commentary about stigmatization of fetishes; it’s just a joke about how getting hurt only makes him stronger. Three of Satsuki’s elite minions are men, so if the show were actually subverting traditional masculine values, I would imagine those characters would have a theme or character arc that furthers that message.
That’s the problem with the argument that because the show has male nudity, everything evens out; Kill la Kill isn’t even-handed in how it portrays men and women. Pay attention to their body types. Mako’s father is fat, Gamagoori is an angular pile of muscle, Sanageyama is mocked for having a small dick, Ryuko’s father is a hunchback, etc. There are two or three recurring male characters who are supposed to be conventionally attractive. Compare that to the female characters, who, with the sole exception of Nui, all have the same body type. Can you guess what that is?
So, the question that brought me to write this piece: did Imaishi intend for Kill la Kill to have feminist themes? To answer that, I also looked at some of the shows and episodes he’s directed in the past to see how Kill la Kill compares visually. After all, if there are feminist messages scattered throughout his ouvre, it should be easy to point to Kill la Kill as a continuation of that theme. On the other hand, maybe there’s some evidence that people were just seeing what they wanted to see and seized on shaky evidence to support it. I feel like there might be a simple way of proving this. Perhaps if there were
his shows had in common. Something like a camera angle he likes to use or some kind of recurring visual element that keeps cropping up independent of the work’s story and tone. If there were something like that present in most of his work, that would prove its inclusion in Kill la Kill isn’t necessarily meaningful, as opposed to something he just likes. I can’t think what that might be, though. Maybe the fine folks in the comments can help me out.
What about death of the author? That’s too broad a debate for me to sort out in a comedy anime review article, so I’ll just ask you to assume that while a creator isn’t necessarily the final word on a story (hello, George Lucas), neither can a story be completely divorced from the creative mind(s) behind it. If all of Imaishi’s work depicts women in more or less the same way, visually, then it stands to reason that he does it that way because it appeals to him, and not because he’s secretly been creating feminist masterpieces for the last 20 years and people are just now realizing it. He must be bad at conveying themes if nobody realized what he was up to until Kill la Kill. Alternatively, something has changed with anime fans, especially western ones. I’ve seen a trend of people insisting that the fanservice in their favorite anime is purely ironic, that shows like Keijo Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark are promoting a healthy gender dynamic by filling the screen with tits and ass.
Now, if you want to masturbate to students in swimsuits unleashing Butt Guillotines and Shoryucans on each other, that’s your business. But please be honest: Keijo is softcore porn and female empowerment was the last thing on the anyone’s mind when making it. Same for Kill la Kill. “No it isn’t,” the thought process goes. “Sexism is bad, and I like this show, so it can’t be sexist, because then it would be bad too!” Which is how you get think pieces on sites like Anime Feminist singing Keijo‘s praises or the assortment of articles mentioned above. Maybe throw in some contrarianism for seasoning. Some people might genuinely take away a pro-feminist message from it, but they’re missing the point about as severely as those who take Humbert Humbert at his word or interpret The Iron Dream as a pro-Nazi allegory. Consider the intellectual contortions needed to go from “Ryuko is forced to wear something she doesn’t like” to “this show has a feminist agenda.” There’s an obvious discrepancy between what actually happens on-screen and what goes on in certain viewers’ heads.
Now, I’m not making the claim that fans of fanservice-heavy shows all secretly have ulterior motives. Some people like schlock, and that’s fine. I like schlock. And some people get understandably defensive when you point out that the stuff they like is schlock. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what I don’t appreciate is when those people try to present it as some kind of intellectual pursuit. I enjoy trashy Baen books, but that doesn’t make them profound. And if I want to think, I’ll put down the trash and read something that’s well-written and has layers to it, like Moby Dick or The Book of the New Sun. Of course, if all you watch or read is schlock, with nothing to compare it to, then maybe you’ll start to believe schlock is legitimately brilliant.
Basically, if you’re seeking out feminist messages in pop culture, there may be better places to look than softcore porn aimed at a teenage male audience.