September 7, 2011

Belldandy: Divine Goddess or Sexist Doormat?

Posted in Gender Roles, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 11:51 pm by starsamaria

Aside from writing about shojo, one of the topics I’m really interested in is examining gender roles in anime and manga. One of the most polarizing character types throughout anime and manga is the yamato nadeshiko. A yamato nadeshiko is the ‘ideal traditional Japanese woman’ – someone who is modest, feminine, kind and domestic. When I think of the yamato nadeshiko archetype, the first character that comes to mind is Belldandy from  the seinen series Ah! My Goddess. But as gender roles are becoming increasingly flexible, I’ve seen many people lash out against yamato nadeshiko-type characters as sexist doormats that are symbols of female repression – especially Belldandy. I’ve seen a lot of people debate about whether Belldandy is a doormat because she is so perfect. A major complaint against her character is that she is bound to live with Keiichi by a contract because he wished for her to live with him forever – and thus, she is ‘repressed.’ Jonathon Clements and Helen McCarthy, authors of The Anime Encyclopedia, criticize the story for positing “a boy who is pure of heart and gives him the perfect girlfriend, whose role seems to be to look pretty, cook and clean (462).” Many fans also find fault with the fact that Belldandy happily obliges to this arrangement, and hate that her staying with him is ‘justified’ by the fact that she later falls in love with him.

Overall, I do find the yamato nadeshiko character type to be offensive, because it is a male fantasy that sets impossible standards for women. But personally, Belldandy has never bothered me much even though many consider her character to be anti-feminist. Yes, she is a bit too perfect – she can sing, is kind, beautiful and conveniently great at domestic chores (which she finds fun). And yes, she has powers and prominence yet chooses to stay at home and do the cooking (and I noticed she never eats any of it). But I think the reason I’m okay with the Belldandy character is that she plays perfect so well. I mean, she’s a goddess. If anyone was going to be motherly, kind, divine and perfect, it should be a goddess. But most importantly, she has an existence that’s separate from Keiichi – she has powers and a job as a goddess that have nothing to do with him (and frankly that he can’t understand). She has other relationships that are important to her, like with her sisters. Plus, the other females in the series are far from perfect or traditional – and some characters (like Sayoko) have a hard time believing that someone like Belldandy can even exist. I think the fact that not everyone sees Belldandy as the ‘ideal woman’ within the series itself helps me feel like Kosuke Fujishima, the creator of Ah! My Goddess, isn’t trying to argue that we should stick to traditional gender roles: rather, he’s presenting different types of femininity.  

Besides, there are other yamato nadeshiko characters that I find to be more sexist than Belldandy. The most aggravating yamato nadeshiko has to be Aoi Sakuraba from Ai Yori Aoshi – I wasn’t even able to make it five episodes into Ai Yori Aoshi because her character bothered me so much! When Aoi and her fiancé, Kaoru, were five-years-old, their parents arranged for them to marry in the future. But Kaoru decides to leave his wealthy family, and the arrangement is broken. Nevertheless, Aoi trains to become the perfect bride, and as soon as she turns eighteen (which is in the beginning of the series), she moves to Tokyo to find Kaoru so she can fulfill her dream (and their promise). They soon move in-together, and start a relationship. Personality-wise, Aoi is similar to Belldandy -she’s kind, shy, and feminine. The fact that Aoi trained to be the perfect bride is just creepy to me – I can imagine her at ten-years-old doing laundry muttering ‘must…be…a…perfect…wife!’ And the fact that she learned to become modest and great at domestic tasks because this is what she assumes all men want in a wife is just insulting to men. But what’s most bothersome about this is that Aoi has no real goals in life that don’t revolve around Kaoru, unlike Belldandy. Some people defend her character and point out that she does at least have a backbone because she defies her family to be with Kaoru. But the only times she loses her modest demeanor is for Kaoru, which shows that her entire life is based around this relationship. Basically, Aoi’s whole existence and personality is dependent on Kaoru, and that  is truly disturbing and anti-feminist.

A divine Belldandy

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  1. soaringwings said,

    Never watch Ai Yori Aoshi and I’ve only read a bit of Oh my Goddess (before I dropped it because it was too boring), but I don’t like either character. Ai for the reasons you listed and Belldandy for the idea that an all important goddess would or should bend to the whims of one man. It is precisely because she is important and powerful that she shouldn’t be stuck with some dude doing his laundry and cooking his meals. But yeah, not the target audience and don’t like these sorts of male fantasy stories at all. Best seinen romance is still Maison Ikkoku~ Haven’t found anything I’ve liked more. :3

    • starsamaria said,

      The fact that someone as powerful as Belldandy is so content with being in the kitchen all day is frustrating, especially because in doing so she is affirming female passivity/traditional gender roles. But I still can’t hate Belldandy herself, if only because she pulls off the perfect woman role better than Aoi does. I love Maison Ikkoku; it makes me cry so much (I haven’t finished it yet, though).

      • soaringwings said,

        I respect that. :)
        I couldn’t even finish the first volume because it bore me, which is really rare because I’ve read some pretty meh stuff and managed to finish it. So I don’t have a real idea of her character.

  2. John Samuel said,

    Nicely balanced post. One aspect of the Yamato Nadeshiko that is often missed is that the Nadeshiko is a WILDflower, and this carries overtones of the Samurai class from which the term originated.

    i.e. Beware the Nice Ones. Belldandy is one of the relatively few examples where this aspec is not overlooked: it is possible to make her mad, and doing so is NOT recommended for your health.

  3. [...] See this Shojo Corner post by Starsamaria for a good example of a Belldandy centred [...]

  4. I myself am a great fan of Ah my Goddess! and I have to agree that I don’t particularly see her as anti-feminist. It bothers me that just because a particular character does the house work and enjoys doing it automatically labels her as conforming to gender roles. It’s a bit like saying that doing domestic work is oppressive, but as bell hooks said, “women should learn to value their work”, no matter what area it may be in. Belldandy as you say, does these things with the intention that she is doing her job. She takes pride in the work she does and is not bothered that society things that it only serves one person, in this case Keichi a man and therefore maintains the oppressive patriarchy. In the anime, to add to her perfect credentials Belldandy is attends college with Keichi and gets perfect grades. This is simply due to the fact, as you pointed out, that she is a Goddess, a first class Goddess with a lot of power and wisdom. She’s quite sure of her own purpose in life and she’s comfortable where she is. And if still one thinks of Belldandy as anti-feminist, or the series in general to be a male fantasy (which in some instances it can seem to be ^ ^;), the other variety of female characters balance it out. As you said, the series shows the variety of femininity, but I’m a bit sad that others do not necessarily see this.

    • starsamaria said,

      Thank you for commenting! In many ways, I can see why people are bothered by Belldandy because on paper, yes, she seems like a male fantasy and thus an extremely sexist stereotype. Yet I could never simply see Belldandy this way because she’s so pure-hearted, and I think that’s more important to her character than the fact that she can cook or keep house well. And like you mentioned, she does choose to attend college, which I really appreciated. She gains friends from doing so, which shows that there is more to Belldandy than just her relationship with Keiichi. I also love that she can ride a motorcycle, since that’s so opposite from a feminine characteristic and further fleshes Belldandy out from being more than just the perfect yamato nadeshiko.

      • You’re welcome! I do enjoy reading your blog. It makes me want to get back to collecting shojo again. I was inspired to read Dengeki Daisy because of your praise for it.

  5. tsuruhami said,

    Ah, they’re typical nice girl. Belldandy remind me of Tohru. they’re such a marty sue. I bet if there’s a person that want to cut their fingers, they will just smile and offered their fingers… to be cut. Ugh.

    Girls that TOO nice are boring and scary and stupid.

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