“Girlness” is a state of mind: Exploring contemporary Japanese women’s theatre and visual arts

This post was contributed by Dr Nobuko Anan, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Language. Here, Dr Anan offers an insight into her new book on Japanese girls’ culture

Dr Nobuko Anan's new book 'Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts Performing Girls’ Aesthetics' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Dr Nobuko Anan’s new book ‘Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts
Performing Girls’ Aesthetics’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Japanese girls’ culture evokes various images, such as Hello Kitty, cute fighting girls in anime and female students in the sex industry. However, in my monograph, Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts: Performing Girls’ Aesthetics (Palgrave 2016), I have introduced another type of Japanese girls’ culture, which I call “girls’ aesthetics.” These aesthetics are not well known outside of Japan, but are present in many types of contemporary Japanese women’s theatre and visual arts.

An escape from the pressures of Japanese society

Girls’ aesthetics arose in the early twentieth century Japan with the establishment of Western-style girls’ mission schools and the publication of girls’ magazines. These physical places and objects created a space where girls could escape from societal pressures within Japan’s growing empire.

In this space, girls rejected their future as the embodiment of state-sanctioned motherhood, that is, reproducers of culturally and ethnically “pure” Japanese citizens, and instead fantacised same-sex intimacy in (what they imagined as) a tolerant West and romanticised death as a means to reject motherhood. The influence of these themes can be seen in the contemporary period, for example, in the Rococo/Victorian-inspired Gothic-Lolita fashion and boys’ love manga, which are mainly consumed by female readers.

“Girlness” is a state of mind

Although girls’ aesthetics originated in schoolgirl culture in the modern times, one of its important characteristics is that it is embraced not only by female adolescents but also by adult women and in some cases by men. One of the points I have made in the monograph is that “girl” as an aesthetic category does not exclude people based on their sex or biological age. “Girlness” is a state of mind. Indeed, the monograph is about the ways adult women artists make use of girls’ aesthetics as a political tool to challenge stereotypical womanhood.

In these aesthetics, girls’ desire to escape motherhood through an eternal girlhood, which can only be achieved by death as a girl. Related to this, I discuss NOISE’s play about the group suicide of high school girls and Yubiwa Hotel’s production, where girlie adult women use violence on each other as if to help each other to terminate their lives as mothers. This rejection of motherhood can also be seen in Miwa Yanagi’s visual art work, in which time only circulates between girls and old women.

Imagined Westernised spaces

Another aspect of girls’ aesthetics is that they seek to escape the heterosexist and nationalist Japanese reality through imagined Westernised spaces. I explore this within the work of Moto Hagio’s and Riyoko Ikeda’s girls’ manga pieces, which are love stories between androgynous characters in the Western countries.

The two-dimensional nature of manga provides a space for imagining this liberation from material reality. I also examine how this two-dimensionality is captured or lost in theatrical adaptations by the Takarazuka Revue and Studio Life and a film adaptation by Shūsuke Kaneko and Rio Kishida.

While I discuss in great detail the ways girls adore the imagined West, I also explore the dance troupe KATHY, whose members demonstrate Japan’s ambivalent relationship with the West. They portray a nostalgic image of Westernised girls by wearing blond wigs and 1950s-style pastel-coloured party dresses, but they stage failures to dance ballet and other Western-style dances.

While this could be a critique of Westernisation of Japanese bodies, it is less clearly so, because the group is anonymous (the members cover their faces while they dance) and therefore we cannot be certain that they are Japanese.

About the book

Girls’ aesthetics provide a rich alternative conception of women, where many of the traditional dichotomies (e.g., girls as failures as opposed to “fully-fledged” women, Japanese women as the opposite to Western women, etc.) are reconfigured in ways that differ from Western representations of women.

This book is of interest for students in theatre, visual arts, media studies, Japanese studies and gender/sexuality studies.

More information about the book is available here.

Find out more

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Parents in Parliament: The Motherhood Trap

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, a Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Professor Sarah Childs (University of Bristol). It was originally published on the British Politics and Public Life blog.

Men’s over-representation and women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is pretty well known, even if the public sometimes over-estimates just how many women MPs there are, bedazzled by their bright clothing in the Chamber.[1] In fact, men outnumber women by more than 4:1. (In his 2009 survey conducted by YouGov, Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham) asked respondents what they thought was the correct percentage of women MPs was. At the time the average response was 26% when the actual figure was closer to 20%.)

Some people may not find this particularly troublesome. Lord Hurd has recently been cited saying that there is a “ludicrous” obsession with ensuring there is equal representation of men and woman in parliament and other areas of public life. We believe very strongly that a diversity of background and experience does matter. And there’s another serious flaw with the Hurd line of reasoning. He says that if voters didn’t want a “good looking chap from a public school” as prime minister they wouldn’t keep choosing them. But the reason feminists have campaigned for All Women Short-lists as a means to get more women at Westminster is precisely because it’s political parties not voters who choose our candidates and party leaders. We the voters don’t get to choose our parliamentary candidates, and therefore who our MPs, are. The reasons there are too few women in politics stems from both a lack of demand for and supply of women candidates: voters don’t punish women candidates. But in the absence of equality measures such as Labour’s All Women’s Shortlists, parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats, even if fewer women seek selection as parliamentary candidates overall.

Having children is frequently cited as a barrier that holds women back from seeking parliamentary selection. But of course not all women are mothers. And both men and women are parents. So we need to question whether the problem is less about the equal representation of men and women – or parents and non-parents – and perhaps more about the exclusion of mothers?

Until now, the UK Parliament simply did not know how many mothers or fathers sat on its green benches. During the new Labour years, and again since 2010, a number of women MPs have given birth: the latest being the Liberal Democrat Minister Jo Swinson, who is currently facing criticism for wanting to have her child with her in the division lobby. We doubt that the vocal hostility to the needs of a new mother, that her comments have generated, are likely to increase the supply of mothers seeking selection for the 2015 general election.

In our survey (supported by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Commons Diversity and Inclusion Unit )of MPs in 2012 we found a startling set of facts about mothers and fathers in Parliament:

• 45% of women MPs have no children, compared to 28% of male MPs, and compared to an average of about 20% of the population who remain childless. (According to the Office for National Statistics 20 percent of women born in 1966 remain childless.)
• Of all MPs with children, male MPs have on average 1.9 children, whilst women MPs have on average only 1.2
• The average age of women MPs’ eldest child, when they first entered parliament, was 16 years old ; the average age of men MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament was 12 years old
In sum: women MPs are (1) less likely to have children than male MPs; (2) more likely to have fewer children than male MPs; and (3) enter parliament when their children are older than the children of male MPs.

These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to Parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.

Reactions to these statistics will likely vary depending on whether you believe that the House of Commons should look like the society it represents for reasons of justice; or whether you think that good-looking public school educated men are equally capable of understanding the complexities of juggling work and family life. There will be those who have no fear that without mothers in Parliament the soaring costs of childcare and the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on women in low paid and part-time work (mostly mothers) will reach the top of the political agenda. We’re not so sure. And that’s why we want more mothers in Parliament.

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Mothers, murderers and mistresses: the empresses of ancient Rome

Professor Catharine EdwardsProfessor Catharine Edwards, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, will be presenting Mothers, murderers and mistresses: the empresses of ancient Rome, on BBC4 from Wednesday 29 May, 9pm.

Female members of the imperial family, the wives, daughters – and particularly mothers – of Roman emperors are some of the most colourful characters in Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ accounts of Rome in the early imperial age.  Livia, wife of Rome’s first emperor Augustus, and mother of its second – Tiberius, emerges as the lynch-pin of the family – charming, politically adept, devious – and prepared to stop at nothing – including murder – to secure her son’s succession to the imperial throne. Agrippina, sister of the emperor Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, outdoes even Livia in her outrageous plotting. She seduces the emperor Claudius, who happens to be her uncle, becomes his wife, then later murders him as soon as her son Nero is old enough to take over. Agrippina, it seems, longs to rule the empire herself. Nero cannot bear his mother’s domineering and eventually has her killed.

Other women, most strikingly Augustus’ only daughter, Julia, and Claudius’ first wife, Messalina, attract attention for their flagrant sexual excesses. One ancient writer describes Julia entertaining her lovers in public in the Roman forum, while Messalina is said to have taken part in a competition with Rome’s leading prostitute and won, satisfying 25 clients in 24 hours – if, that is, we are to believe the scandalized reports of Roman commentators.

Gender and Power in Ancient Rome

I’ve always been interested in the interrelationship between gender and power in ancient Rome. This was a key concern in my first book, The politics of immorality in ancient Rome (Cambridge 1993). It’s also something that drew me to publish a translation of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (Oxford World’s Classics 2000), while Tacitus’ characterization of Agrippina features particularly in my more recent Death in ancient Rome (Yale 2007). When I was approached by Tom Webber of Hotsauce TV to research and present a three-part series on Roman imperial women I jumped at the chance.

Piecing together the stories of women

The stories of these women, though gripping, are often lost sight of, even when we focus on individual Roman emperors – let alone in studies of military or administrative history. Can we ever hope to recover something of their point of view? Tantalisingly, Agrippina herself wrote an account of her family’s history, which is now lost, though Tacitus drew on it in writing his Annals. What kind of a view of Roman history did this offer? Would it have given us a flavour of what it felt like to be almost at the pinnacle of Roman power, yet always ultimately dependent on the continuing favour of an erratic and perhaps not very bright young man obsessed with music and sex? Agrippina was probably fully justified if she thought she could do a much better job of running the empire than her teenage son.

Another question our series sets out to explore is how much influence these women really had. Fleeting references in ancient literature, as well as texts inscribed on stone, are pieced together to reveal Livia, for instance, getting involved in the affairs of subject communities in the eastern Roman empire, interceding with Augustus on behalf of the islanders of Samos or advising Salome, sister of Herod the Great, on whom she should marry.

Envy or admiration?

Agrippina and Nero

Agrippina and Nero

The ancient evidence relating to these women is often highly contradictory.  One particular challenge we face is explaining the striking mismatch between literary accounts, which so often highlight these women’s shocking excesses, whether of ambition, avarice or sexual desire and, on the other hand, the coins and works of sculpture (such as the relief shown above, in which Agrippina places a wreath on Nero’s head) which seem to recognize their position and influence as completely legitimate. Did Romans  – and the inhabitants of the empire more generally – resent these imperial women or admire them – or is the picture more complex? Venerated, envied, viewed with suspicion, feared and sometimes hated they certainly provoked strong emotions.

Above all we need to be cautious about taking ancient accounts of their scandalous misbehavior, all those stories of adultery and poisoning, at face value. The Romans often prided themselves on their rugged masculinity; political power in Roman antiquity is characterized as something that is – or ought to be – a masculine preserve. The advent of the principate (as ancient historians term the monarchical regime which succeeded the Roman republic) brought significant political change. In a system where power was transmitted through the family, female members of that family came to have enormous importance. Many of the traditional Roman ruling class, the senatorial elite, resented the rule of one family and focused their resentment on the influence of its women. And what better way to undermine the authority of an emperor than to ridicule him for being under a woman’s thumb, whether scheming wife or domineering mother?

Watch a trailer for the documentary, starting on 29 May 2013, 9pm, BBC4:

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