Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Trigger warning: The following includes mention of mental illness and sexual violence.
In the world of animation, it is not uncommon for animators to produce content that grossly oversexualizes characters. Starting from the old Disney Classics, to the Japanese anime that is becoming increasingly popular in the west, animated sexualization is tactically marketed in a way that deems it harmless. However, impressionable children and teenagers can interpret this mainstream trend of sexualization as innocuous and innocent, not understanding how dangerous adopting it can be.
To hypersexualize means to make extremely sexual, and/or to accentuate someone’s sexuality. Hypersexualization in the media can have various consequences for viewers. For example, the hypersexualization of girls can cause other girls and women to have anxiety about appearance, eating disorders, and lower self-esteem. Research conducted by the Dove Self Esteem Project found that only 11 percent of girls worldwide would call themselves beautiful. The same consequences apply to the hypersexualization of males. Seeing male figures with defined features and muscles can lower self-esteem as well.
Hypersexualization has been present since the start of popular animation. In 1953, Walt Disney Productions, now known as The Walt Disney Company, released their adaptation of J.M Barrie’s 1904 play, “Peter Pan”. The Disney Classics version has the same characters as the play: Peter Pan, Wendy Darling, and, most importantly, Tinker Bell. In the film, there’s a scene where the Tiny Tinker bell comes into contact with a mirror and proceeds to appreciate how she looks in a dress that isn’t even long enough to cover her behind. She then puts her hands on hips, brings them out in front of her, and looks at the gap between them in disdain as if to say, ‘they’re too big.’
In the same film, there’s a scene in which Tinker Bell gets stuck in a drawer and tries to push herself out through the keyhole. There are several shots of the character from the back, showing her small dress flip upwards every time she pushes outwards. In yet another seemingly innocent yet unpleasant scene, when Peter Pan needs pixie dust, he holds Tinker Bell up by her wings and spanks her rear multiple times to shake some dust off of her.
Portrayals like these push the stereotypes of the small and helpless female and the strong and dominating male. These ideologies can unknowingly endorse gender-based violence, making such acts seem less important because of their frequent recurrence. This can lead to an increase in the likelihood that acts of sexual violence will go unreported — something very detrimental as only one percent of adolescent girls who have experienced forced sex reach out for professional help.
Another animated medium in which hypersexualization is present is the Japanese animation style known as anime. There are two types of anime and manga (the comic-book version of anime): shonen, which is typically marketed towards boys, and shojo, which is marketed towards girls. Both of these genres contain various generalizations. For example, the plot of a shonen usually revolves around a powerful main character. The plot of a shojo is almost always a romantic drama. These very banal stereotypes, along with the obvious hypersexualization of female characters for fanservice, represents an obnoxious and baleful view of sexual elements.
My Hero Academia, one of the most popular superhero anime and manga, would be classified as a shojo, with Izuku Midoriya (Deku) as the main character. Some of the female characters in this series such as Ochako Uraraka (Uravity), Momo Yaoyorozu (The Everything Hero), and Nemuri Kayama (Midnight), are all drawn and animated with voluptuous breasts and wide hips. Except for Uraraka, both Yaoyorozu and Kayama have costumes that solely highlight their chests. Oversexualizing female characters attracts larger amounts of male viewers and readers, all while degrading females.
Male characters in the anime/manga, such as Katsuki Bakugou and Shoto Todoroki, are also shown to have defined muscles on their arms and abdomen. These characteristics are fanservice for the female audience and succeed at showing the strong, dominant nature that the artists were trying to portray.
Hypersexualization in animation is not a new concept. Sexualizing young female characters and sticking to traditional and clichèd stereotypes has been done for as long as popular animation has been around. This negative trend needs to stop moving forward and needs to feature correct images of both male and female characters that do not inconspicuously endanger viewers’ mental health and self-esteem. Sex appeal needs to decrease in animation, and positive and strong role models need to become the norm.