Tuesday, November 11, 2014

COMEBACK LOL [Anti-] ranking post: 6 reasons why I just can't rank members of idol groups anymore.

Hm...I've been dying and coming back a lot over the past couple years, huh?
Grad school has done a lot of things with my life, but I loudly and obnoxiously swear that being patient zero of the zombie apocalypse is not one of them. :D :D :D

Though my efforts at writing papers might disagree...

One of last spring's efforts while it was still far under the word count requirement...
BEE TEE DUBS, no I have not forgotten about the lost Orientalism post...just...let me finish my prospectuses and theses and STUFF LIKE THAT BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. ;)

NEWAYZ...

So I was sitting on ze bus this morning, jamming out to Morning Musume '14's latest compilation of awesome, 14章~The message~ (which has been keeping me sane...much to my boyfriend's squealing delight, I'm quite sure...), and I had a poofy light bulb moment!

This epiphany wasn't really the kind you get when you come up with a mind-buggeringly amazing idea; it was the more subtle kind that happens when you finally figure out how to talk about something that's been bugging the crap out of you for AGES. I've had, like, 3 drafts lurking in my blog queue about the super-irksome issue of oshimen/oshihen/ranking, but none of them ever left the draft stage because they just plain didn't sound right to me.

That was before a bunch of awesome people went to the MM'14 concert in New York (still très jealous, guys) and met some of our favorite girls.

And also some of our (formerly) least.

Pictured: Erstwhile Hate Dumpster.
The US fans who attended the event got me thinking with their reactions to meeting the girls, especially in their thoughtful evaluations of which girl got the least reaction from the crowd (Sakura and Eripon, it seems like, followed closely by Riho), who got the most (Zukki by a landslide), and their impressions after meeting the girls at the handshake event afterward (mostly and happily something along the lines of RIHO IS SO PRECIOUS, I SHALL REPENT OF MY SINFUL WAYS). And in the translations of the girls' evaluations of the New York trip, it gave us a little bit of a window into what is different in fan culture in Japan as opposed to here.

Like all idol fans, I will always be drawn to some members of groups more than others. For some groups, the members in whom I am most interested tends to change at the drop of a hat (like Morning Musume, BiS (WAAH) and Nogizaka46). Others wiggle a bit, but always tend to bring me back to the same girl (like Berryz Kobo, SKE48, and Sakura Gakuin (et al)). And still other groups will, for me, always be haunted by the graduation of that one girl whose loss I will never get over, and my attention to the group will never be the same (like AKB48 and Momoclo FFS IT HAS BEEN ALMOST 4 YEARS AND STILL AUGH).

And like most idol fans, I've enjoyed playing a ranker every so often. But I've had a huge problem with the idea of oshimen/oshihen for a long time. And I think now is the perfect time to say why.  Without further ado, here are the 6 reasons why I've decided I can no longer spend precious mental or emotional energy ranking members of idol groups.

6. My (and *your*) reasons for not liking certain idols may never be proven justifiable or not.

First off, like in the case of Riho in New York, it's really hard to gauge how much you like a girl unless you meet them. Who knows, you could be dead wrong about who you think you like and who you aren't so fond of.

Second: In my almost 6 years of being an idol fan, there have only been two girls I have grown not just to dislike or be uninterested in, but outright loathe. Those members are former Morning Musume Kamei Eri and current S/mileage leader Wada Ayaka. I have similar reasons for harboring an irrevocable dislike for both of them, and I know that there is precious little that can be done to change my mind.

With Ayaka, it began with a (possibly) questionably-translated comment she made a while ago about disliking foreigners. I tried to look past that, and see her awesome skills as a leader and mentor to her kouhai, and later as an active part of revamping S/mileage and bringing in the 3rd generation. I tried so damn hard, and if you look back through this blog, you'll find several places where I did so, and valiantly. But in the end, no amount of research showed me anything proving this comment was badly translated, or that it meant anything other than what it means. All I found was a trove of idle speculation. And I can't let go of my resentment based on badly-sourced faith.

With Eri, it was very similar. So...you guys remember this little incident in 2010? Yeah, Sayu and Reina both issued apologies, but I heard approximately JACK from Eri. I have zero patience for racism. Period, end of story.

BUT (seriously, read the but):

This point is not about whether my assumptions about these girls are correct. What this is about is my own inability to prove that my assumptions either are or aren't correct. I read/understand just enough Japanese to allow me to navigate searches, recognize important and recurring phrases and recognize names. I am limited in my understanding.

Furthermore, I don't have time at this point in my life to rectify this. Would that I did, would that I could. I recognize that I myself am an unreliable source on this, and that I can't reasonably expect myself to be right. Therefore, why should I spend time making a stupid numbered list predicated partly on information that might not be sound?

(Allowing ourselves to do this is where all these nasty -isms start in the first place. And I don't wanna be that guy.)

Speaking of information we don't have...

5. Idols are human beings. Seriously.

Have you guys seen the Girls Live footage of Eripon's handshake line? Seriously, Have. You. Seen. This. Be prepared to be brokoro in the kokoro.



So think for a second about the reactions each girl gets at events. How must it feel not to be Riho or Sayu or Mizuki? Some people have argued that, because idol culture is so hugely staged, Eripon's sad face in this clip was staged as well. I can see the point of arguing that, but I'll be honest here: that argument is inhuman and cynical and y'all should be ashamed. 

Why?

Come. On.
That face is not the face of someone who is acting sad to get attention. That is not the face of someone who has been told to ham it up for the camera. That is not a publicity stunt, even if, in the end, it was intended to be. (I know; that sounds really confusing, but it makes sense to me) This is the face of someone who is trying very hard to keep herself together to avoid showing the world how awful she feels.

I can't support bringing girls who aren't your/my/our favorites to their knees after a show after not getting as much attention as the others. As heartening as it was to see Suzuki Kanon flip her lid during the reaction she got on stage in New York, it sucked to think about the attention she is NOT getting back home. I can't support that kind of treatment of the less high-profile members, and I won't. 

It doesn't matter if I will never truly *know* the girls' personal heartbreak while they are part of the industry, nor does it matter to me the degree to which being an idol is staged or not. I can't flip that magical "give a shit" switch some fans seem to have. (Sorry, it's true.) Barf.

Which brings me to my next point...

4. Idol culture sets certain people up for failure while propelling others to crazy-go-nuts stardom. And it has yet to apologize either for or to the young women left behind.

We all know this, but the shitty part is that we can't yet say precisely why that is the case.

(Random side note: I love being able to write blog posts like this because I can't yet pepper my academic work with expletives without getting boned for it. Tenure is weird. :D )

One thing we all love about idol culture is how inclusive it can be, and how diverse the girls are. Anyone can be an idol, because everyone has their own talents just waiting to be drawn out. For some young women, being an idol is the perfect way to work this out.

Example 1: Tsugunaga Momoko is taking her idol badassery to the next level by becoming a manager for Country Girls because her time in Berryz Kobo showed both the world and herself what she is awesome at: herding cats and being a great, self-effacing and graceful stage personality. And I admire the crap out of her choice to stay in the industry.

Example 2: Matsui Sakiko may not be most people's conventional idea of a good-looking girl (UGH RAGE FUCK THAT SHIT...er...um...sorrymovingalongnow) or amazing singer, but she works magic at the piano. The idol industry helped her explore that further and showcase it beautifully.

More pianists named Matsui in the world is also a very right and godly thing, too.
But the girls who are left behind and forgotten far outnumber those who succeed, especially in the wake of the -48 epidemic. The stories that have come out recently about "lower tier" members' (the very existence of such a label being in and of itself another value judgement) struggles to make it in the 48 groups or in smaller indie groups scream that something has to change. These young women don't deserve to have to and work 2 jobs and live on the street to make their dream. No one does.

Conversely, idols who become über-popular (sometimes because of OMG DUH TALENT; and sometimes for nebulous reasons I'm not culturally savvy enough to understand) get somewhat of a golden ticket to success.* (I'm thinking about Maeda Atsuko, Yaguchi Mari and Takahashi Ai in particular.)

*But often times, this success is limited to their time in the industry, and it tends not to carry over well because...

3. The objectification of (particularly female) idols hinders their ability to move further in their careers.

When I say "objectification," I don't mean it in the Western media theory sense of viewing people as merely pretty things to look at (although there is a lot Lot  LOT of that going on as well). I'm talking about how idol culture tends to turn idols into ad hoc objets d'art, meaning that, vis-à-vis fan talk and industry presentation, idols are given purpose through being metaphorically transformed into demigods of openly appreciated (and very detailed) beauty.

I have to say that I've always found something truly artistic about how idol culture discusses individual women as being ideals of beauty--whether that beauty is physical, in their talent, in their personality, or in their constructed cultural value as good people. It is artistic, nuanced, and sometimes beautiful and quite positive. There is something particularly moving about seeing these young people on the verge of fulfilling their adult dreams discussed and viewed so thoroughly.

But just because a thing is artistic, poetic, or other such thing doesn't automatically make the thing A Universally Good Thing. Once the shiny box of an idol's role is painted with her talents and personality traits, the girls tend to get locked into it, and it is the more popular idols who become trapped to a greater extent than the less popular ones...

...unless said less popular girls go into AV...

Yonezawa Rumi, formerly of AKB48
If you click the link, you'll be greeted by a prime example of talk that happens when the non-megastar idols get dismissed for not staying in their pure little idol boxes. It has become NORMAL in the idol fandom to think like this, not to MENTION the vomit-inducingly Puritanical way sex is viewed within the idol fandom and idol culture in general.

And of course, there's whole books written about the male gaze and women's sexuality and stigma around sex work and...things that will truly make this post TL;DR if I get started.

Placing such value in popularity and ranking creates the perfect environment for the devaluation of these immensely hard-working young women to thrive. Speaking of hard work and sacrifice...

2. Being an idol is goddamn hard

We've already gone over a lot of reasons why being an idol is no cakewalk. Haven't even mentioned the long hours, countless live events, not to mention those crazy girls like Suzuki Airi and Momo, who juggle university AND their hugely successful idol careers. Good god, I've already almost lost my nut by juggling work, chorale, grad school, etc....bleh.

These girls NEED fan support. They NEED to know they are appreciated. All of them. Not just the ones you're most drawn to.

Plus, those of you with theater experience know that acting is hard. Imagine having to do it 24/7.

1. The concept of oshimen is TOXIC AND NEEDS TO CHANGE.

So yeah, this opinion might get me shot, buuuuuuut


Now, I like some of the awesomeness that comes with the term "oshimen." I like calling Mitsui Aika and Akimoto Sayaka my eternal oshis. I like it because it sounds catchy, it's a fandom inside term, and, well, those two girls will always have a special place in my heart.

But the concept of what an oshimen is, how to oshi, and the stigma around oshihen Need. To. Go. Like, Yesterday-ish.

To oshihen, in really strict (and some a little less strict) idol fan circles, is a sin only outclassed by murdering your grandparents or liking Justin Bieber. And to say that I find that icky is a GROSS understatement.

Hehe...gross...hehe...

In a lot of circles, once you pick an oshimen, you pledge to support her all the time, no matter what, to your grave. To buy another idol's fan goods, or attend another idol's handshake event, or (to some) to even LOOK at another idol like she's awesome are verboten. You pledge yourself to her. You are, to borrow a term from geisha culture (SORRY, BUT IT WORKS HERE...), her danna. And if you oshihen, it's like you're actively cheating on your significant other.

Now think about that for a second.  Let that *really* sink in.

It's true that these examples illustrate the most extreme fan behavior. When you get right down to it, all these extreme behaviors border on stalking, if they're not already. To hardcore oshimen, they basically, in their headsmarry their oshis.  Without the girl's consent, the fan makes her the focal point of his life; his reason for being. There is no universe in which acting out this fantasy should be considered right or normal. But unfortunately, while far (far, far) from every fan approaches oshimen like this, this behavior is more or less brushed aside, accepted in a toned-down form, and otherwise not talked about, and thus oshimen is just accepted as another part of being an idol fan.

The narrative of "these women are just the girls next door" is sold by the industry (run mostly by men) and bought in bulk by (mostly male) fans, but it was, at least originally, just meant to create a fantasy playland in which people could escape from their stressful lives a bit. It was meant to be fun and harmless.

It's not anymore.

In its current form, the idea of oshimen is fucked up, and it needs to stop. The definition of oshimen has to change, and fans have to talk about it because the complacency of fans is half the problem.

Need more convincing? How about this: most idols are underage girls. If the lack of consent surrounding stricter oshimen behavior wasn't enough, that should be.



I can't reconcile ranking, popularity and oshimen with my idol fandom anymore. I love the music and the fun culture that idols make, and the theatricality of it all is part of its charm, and part of what makes being an idol fan fun. But if we really love our girls, we need to treat them as human beings instead of goods to be bought, sold and coveted.


Edit: Discuss! Share ideas! Say things! You can do it! :D

Another edit: You are welcome to tell me I'm wrong or be angry at my opinion. Just be classy about it ;)