Quarantine has been an emotional roller coaster. Although there is nothing directly happening to me, the information I consume every day has greatly impacted my mental state. The spiking numbers of coronavirus cases that I wake up to every morning, repeated injustices perpetrated on Black people and wildfires in Australia and California make me pessimistic about the world. In these difficult times, I have sought comfort in entertainment — an escape, so to speak.
Though I was more familiar with American films and TV shows, watching Asian dramas with my family became a new quarantine tradition during our stay in Japan over the summer. One day, the long-awaited second season of my favorite Japanese TV show, “Hanzawa Naoki,” was on — which turned out to be a whole other disappointment.
The story centers on a male banker, Naoki Hanzawa, who fights against bribery, cheating and injustices done by megacorporations he works with. Right after the first episode aired, its treatment of female characters — who were given minimal screen time and were portrayed as being subjugated to men, which are supposedly the trade-offs of its sharpened narrative — became controversial.
Expectedly, there came much backlash from feminists pointing out these flaws. Nevertheless, much larger voices were heard from the opposing side — fans’ deplorable responses to these criticisms felt like a time machine, bringing me back decades.
“I feel disgusted just looking at these feminists whining about the show.”
“Don’t watch the show if you don’t like it.”
“Why does it even matter, it’s just fiction.”
On top of these, strikingly more misogynistic comments blew up Twitter, sparking an informal yet substantial discussion about the show on social media.
What is worse is that almost no major news outlets covered the issue — reporting focused instead on the show’s high ratings and carefree interviews with the actors about their roles.
In my eyes, some Twitter users and media outlets seemed so unapologetic about either attacking feminists or ignoring their criticisms. There seemed to be no trace of accountability for these misogynistic sentiments.
As a Japanese woman, a feminist and a big fan of the show myself, this series of events had a real toll on my mental health. Besides the underrepresentation of women in the show, seeing these misogynistic comments and the neglect of coverage of the issue by Japanese media, I could not stand how Japanese society so downplayed the voices of feminists and the power of representation in the media. I cannot take these unapologetic misogynists of all genders, who are prevalent in Japan, silencing female voices anymore.
In the United States, though imperfect and still an ongoing fight, the feminist movement is increasing its momentum in the face of the current government. Not only are there bigger voices fighting back against misogynists and anti-feminist claims, but also, since the #MeToo movement, more female actors and filmmakers are speaking up about gender dynamics in media — all while producing great work.
In some of their films, I was finally able to see people like me — Jo in “Little Women,” Lady Bird in “Lady Bird” and Sacha in “Spotlight” — even though their race, nationality or time period may be different from my own, and they might not even do a great job of representing the diversity of the United States. Despite all that, as Roxane Gay beautifully puts in “Bad Feminist,” I clung to them so desperately because these representations were all I had. Or at least, because they tell me that my dreams and ambitions matter and that I matter. That’s what seeing characters whom you identify with does. That is why, for me, these representations are not just another fiction.
Despite the unfavorable environment, the tide of change has slowly been seeping into Japanese entertainment. TV shows with strong female protagonists, including a salary woman who fights injustices in her company, have been produced in recent years. That is why the series of events that followed the premiere of one of the most-watched TV shows in Japan was all the more disheartening.
The term “symbolic annihilation” describes how entertainment sends the message that you are “unimportant” if you do not see yourself represented in media. In a time when we spend so much time looking at screens, the representation you see of yourself affects you more than you realize.
I hope that one day people understand the importance of media and recognize that denying female representation unapologetically may annihilate the hopes and dreams of many women. Until then, the fight has to continue. To stay hopeful, I will watch the heroic speeches of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on YouTube for the time being.