Can we talk about Chainsaw Man’s problem with women?

Look, I like Chainsaw Man. I love it, even. I read the manga in a single sitting and it took over my brain, I’ve talked about it nonstop for almost a year. I think Tatsuki Fujimoto’s art, paneling, and narrative style are some of the best in the business. I also think Chainsaw Man absolutely, unequivocally, sucks. It sucks because its objectification of women is literally inescapable. But nobody really talks about that part, which is what sucks even worse. So I’m here to put on my feminist killjoy hat and say, look, can we actually talk about Chainsaw Man’s problem with women?

It’s not all bad. Chainsaw Man has a lot of fantastic female characters, who are at least implied to be whole people; Power, Makima, Kobeni, and even Himeno are iconic for a reason. The problem is how it looks at them, and how it makes the audience a part of that looking.

The motivating force driving the plot of Chainsaw Man is that its protagonist Denji is horny. This in and of itself is not bad, surprisingly enough: there’s a strong case for a nuanced reading of the text in which Denji’s sexual motivations change over time as he learns that what he craves isn’t the sexual conquest he was taught to expect, but genuine connections with other people; that despite everything he’s heard about touching boobs and getting pussy, it feels empty if you don’t actually care about the person you’re with. The problem is that the camera’s motivation is the same as Denji’s. It’s really pronounced in the anime, the way the camera will take Denji’s POV, leering at Makima and Power and Himeno, the zoomed-in shots of boobs in the opening, the groping scenes with Power and Makima, the entirety of the 7th episode’s ending sequence. The camera itself is looking from Denji’s gaze; the camera is driven by sexual gratification. This makes the audience complicit, too: the character, the camera, and the audience all engaging in the act of looking at women as objects of sexual gratification. It is the textbook definition of the male gaze.

“Male gaze” can seem like a buzzword, but it was coined with a specific meaning. Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey in her seminal 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” called it “Woman as image, Man as bearer of the look,” which she described as the way that male is the active viewer and female becomes the passive viewed object. She writes: “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire.” (Mulvey, 1975).

This dichotomy of looker/looked-at is created by the subjective gaze of the camera: the camera looks at women, creating a film in which women are looked-at, meaning the audience, male or female, has no choice but to assume the role of the looker, and for the women in the film to be perpetually looked-at, further cementing the assumption that women are things to be looked at, and men are the ones doing the looking. It’s a self-reproducing cycle that constantly re-objectifies women and re-empowers men. It’s a principle of film theory, but the implications of the male gaze go far beyond what is on the screen: it changes the way you think about yourself. It creates an internalized voyeur.

The male gaze in cinema, the constant looking at women, creates a situation in which women conceive of themselves as something to be looked at. Film theorist John Berger in “Ways of Seeing” described it as: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.” (Berger, 1990)

Margaret Atwood described this self-surveillance in a quote that has haunted me since high school, when I read it for the first time and had the roots of my constant anxiety about being seen fall into place. “Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” (Atwood, 1993)

It’s hard to explain this internalized objectification to someone who has not felt it, the ever-present awareness of how you look, the tendency to think of yourself from a third-person perspective, try to imagine how someone else would look at you, to view your body as an entity distinct from yourself. The crushing threat of ugliness, of failing to look good in front of the inescapable internal voyeur. And these constant constraints affect you directly. Objectification on such a societal level that you reproduce it in your own head; a direct impact of structural misogyny, reducing you to just a body.

All of this is, obviously, bigger than just Chainsaw Man. It’s not like Tatsuki Fujimoto and Mappa studios personally invented misogyny and the patriarchy. But they perpetuate it in very obvious ways, when they dedicate so much screen time to looking at every female character in the series. Anime and manga in general are dripping with misogyny, and the fact that “fanservice” is just something you have to put up with when watching almost any show kind of says it all. The looking is inescapable. And I can feel some of you rolling your eyes at me: What am I supposed to do about it? Never watch anime again? And that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m not “canceling” Chainsaw Man, I’m not saying enjoying it makes you a bad person. If I tried to cancel every piece of media that had something bad in it I would have basically nothing left to read or watch. I’m just saying we need to talk about it more.

It’s not a fun conversation. It sucks when things you like are bad in some way, and it’s understandable why people want to just avoid those aspects of them. But without serious criticism, what will improve? Feminist writer Sara Ahmed wrote an entire manifesto about the necessary dedication to being a killjoy: to criticize and to “ruin” and to be a total downer about misogyny because someone needs to talk about it. “If something would make us unhappy,
when acknowledged, we need to acknowledge it.” (Ahmed, 2017) So, yes, Chainsaw Man has a serious problem with women, one that we should–and that I will–continue to talk about in the hopes that eventually, one day, I’ll be able to watch and anime and not have to think, wow, I sure wish she wasn’t represented like that. In the meantime I will be enjoying Part 2 of the manga and complaining about it feministly the whole time.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.

Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. Doubleday, 1993.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, 1990.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, edited by Sue Thornham, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1999.

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