Death of the Author – Is Anime Art in a Vacuum?

Generally speaking I’m a proponent of approaching anime as a self-contained product. In practice that means I try to disregard the source material, reputation and pedigree of a show and simply enjoy it on its own merits. Occasionally this can get tricky but it’s my preferred method.

I expounded a bit on it in this post, where I argued that the intended impact of a work is irrelevant in the light of audience perception. The two concepts are closely related. In fact, they come together under the doctrine of “La mort de l’auteur” (Death of the Author or Artist) Basically, this is a literary criticism notion that says that an author’s background (religion, politics, race and so on) as well as their intentions should be disregarded when critiquing their work.

durarara-manga

look at all these dead authors…it’s a bloodbath!

The full expression being Death of the author is the birth of the reader, because art is meant to induce interpretation in the audience.

Why bring all this up now? Well, because of The Rising of the Shield Hero and the hoopla around it. I haven’t seen the show, and quite frankly I don’t care that much. It must be doing something right if it’s generating so much conversation and likely this has been reflected in the ratings. But I have heard comments here and there.

Most notably, I have read a bunch of posts and tweets forcefully explaining that the anime was NOT sexist. I probably don’t follow the right publications since without these defense posts, I would never have known that the series had ever even been accused of being sexist. It makes me question my choice in information really.

More specifically though, was the argument that The Rising of the Shield Hero is not sexist because it was written by a woman. I’ve read this a few times now and it’s a very common argument regularly used in media whenever the “sexist” question comes up, and it makes no sense.

shield hero annoyed

annoying, isn’t it?

Aside from the simple fact that a work exists separate from its creator and can be discriminatory even with the best of intentions. There’s also the much more direct issue that women can and occasionally are sexist. The whole point is that they’re people, with all the inherent faults that implies.

Before this becomes a specific argument on Shield Hero (I have since learned the gender of the author may not be known at this time), I’m really not an expert on the subject. I don’t mind at all if you guys have a conversation on it in the comments, in fact I would love that, I just won’t have much of interest to contribute.

I just want to bring a few points across that are important to me personally. First, people’s DNA doesn’t guide their morality. Just because you are part of a minority, or a traditionally oppressed group, doesn’t mean you naturally champion or even represent that group. As such, the author being of any gender or race is irrelevant to their intent or beliefs. I understand that their experiences in life will be shaped by their biological reality and this in turn may inform their morality but that’s speculating way too far and…

anticipation

and what??? and what!!!

It also doesn’t matter. If a work created with the best of intentions has harmful outcomes, you can’t simply ignore everything and treat it as a non-issue. Well you can, but it’s a bit short sighted. Moreover, the intentions of the author don’t invalidate the interpretation of the reader. I always find that a person that debates the content or art by saying well maybe you saw that, but the author actually said this, is relying on a cheap argument with limited merit. If YOU agree with the author, then talk about your interpretation and how you reached it. Otherwise you might as well go my mommy said so…

All of this sounds all well and good, until you consider the flipside of Death of the Author. This is a two-sided coin. Unlike all those tricky one-sided coins. Meaning that if a wonderful piece of art is created by an author you find reprehensible, that also shouldn’t matter if we want to be consistent. Bringing us back to the Rurouni Kenshin debacle. At this point do you support a work you consider worthy regardless of where it comes from. And what if that support enriches the creator? Does praising the art imply a taciturn approval of the artist?

I’m not saying this is a clear-cut question. It’s not at all, which is why it merits discussion in my opinion. I’m not even saying that my interpretation is valid. I’m open to changing my mind on the subject. What I am saying is that claiming something isn’t sexist because the author is a woman is pushing the real issue aside.

By the way, when I made this exact point on twitter, I was almost immediately replied to by some super enthusiastic individuals that immediately pointed out how feminist writings are the most sexist out there or that feminist outcries are never about actually sexist issues. Anyways, it got real intense, real quick. I’m afraid I got a bit scared and backed off right away, so I can’t tell you how it ended.

Let me know, do you believe in death of the author or do you think the creator is always an integral part of the creation? Should we pay for the sins of the father?

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Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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38 Responses

  1. I believe in Death of A Author. Wouldn’t make sense if I didn’t since several of my favorite pieces of literature are by the formerly living. What they believe, or how they behave is irrelevant to me when reading No Longer Human, or The Iliad. If I consume a piece of media I want to either be engaged, or entertained by the content. I wouldn’t read a 500 page novel if it’s boring, or badly written.

    When I stumble upon a story with more questionable content, like having a racist leading character I won’t out right consider it racist. Simply put, I’ll see where it goes as the intent of a author could be to make you dislike a individual character, but understand their point of view even if contradicts what the reader believes. When executed incorrectly, I’ll examine the work itself, and form my own conclusion if it intended message was conveyed.

    I don’t mind the author input on his work, but everyone will interpret things differently regardless what the author says. Neon Genesis Evangelion for example has Christian iconography, but it means nothing in the actual series. Graves of the Fireflies is another example where the director stated in a interview that he believes a anti-war film would end wars. With that context, he wouldn’t consider his own work on the matter as a anti-war film. Many would.

    I treat different media with different expectations, but as their own thing. I ain’t going to go through an entire list of people in a anime production, and read up on all of them to see if they hold the same belief I do. That’ll be both a waste of my time that I could spent watching anime, and the chances of everyone on a production team having the same values is unlikely. In short, unless it’s based around some historical event, or individual. A piece of fiction should be treated as a piece of fiction.

  2. Pete Davison says:

    This is a tricky one! On the one hand, I feel like I’m in favour of reaching your own interpretation of things… on the other, I always really enjoy seeking out the author’s own words on what they intended with something… and on my mysterious third hand one of my least favourite things about the Age of Social Media is being able to see first-hand what complete assholes some of the creators of some of my favourite things are.

    I think part of the problem some people (including me) have with the whole “it’s sexist/racist/whatever” arguments is the fact that they’re often based on extremely superficial impressions that aren’t willing to explore the work in its entirety. There have been a number of games I’ve played over the course of the last few years that had excellent writing and characterisation, but members of the commercial press somehow got away with branding them as “for paedophiles”. There have been games with amazing all-female casts that are “sexist” because those female cast members happen to be attractive. There have been games set in Eastern Europe that are “racist” because there aren’t any black people in them… you know, despite Eastern Europe being one of the most pasty white places on the planet.

    These criticisms don’t do the work any favours because they’re not really engaging with it, and as an extension also tend not to take into account the fact that depicting something is not the same as endorsing it. This is, in part, what happened with Shield Hero from what I can understand. In depicting a world where people kept slaves and where women made false rape allegations, the author was seen as endorsing these things — and the people who enjoyed the show were seen as approving of these things. Again, not helpful — particularly when these arguments came up after just one episode without giving the show any opportunity to develop or explore these themes further.

    To summarise: I don’t have a problem with people interpreting things how they see fit, regardless of authorial intentions (though personally I will tend to defer to the author’s own intentions if they have made those explicitly clear somewhere) — but I do have a problem with people writing something off as some sort of “-ism” without making an attempt to engage with the work fully.

  3. Dawnstorm says:

    I have little to say, or I have a lot to say but don’t know how to say it. The issue about not reading the works of an author you actively dislike, or don’t want to support is a different one, IMO. I mean I know people who have no issue with Orson Scott Cards books themselves, but won’t buy them because of his stance on homosexualism. That’s a matter of personal priorities: they can read the book just fine, but they don’t want to give the author money for fear of contributing to anti-gay-rights activism out of their own pockets. It’s not the book that’s distatefuly, it’s the idea of where your money goes.

    This is different from fans of My Hero Academia hating Mineta, for example. Mineta’s in the text, and that’s that. What the author meant to achieve isn’t all that important: he grates on their nerves either way.

    • Irina says:

      Mineta is annoying. I think my post has about 4 separate issues I didn’t quite manage to frame properly. 1- Authorial intent v/s audience interpretation 2 – Death of the Author as a critical tool 3 – Extra story context on enjoyment 4 – The impact of the messenger on the message.
      I may have missed a few marks there

      • Dawnstorm says:

        It’s an involved topic. You have no idea how many replies of mine frayed at the edges and lost all meaning (the answer is three, but I intended a rhetorical quesion – and I didn’t have a meta comment in mind when I typed “you have no idea”, nor did I actually mean to say “you have no idea”, but all of this is hindsight and my mindset while typing this line was focussed on what I wanted to say and not itself, so my memory is unreliable, and… I think it’s important to close brackets you opened, so here you go:) [I intended to have a punctuation sign point towards another punctiation sign and only after I was done exucting the plan did I notice that it looks like a smily.]

        I feel I need to apologise for this post, but think I don’t have to. Just please don’t ask what I intended with this post. I confuse myself.

  4. lealea477 says:

    A lot of the time it come down to context.
    My first real contact with sexism in manga was a story called ‘bakuman’, it was done by the same people who did ‘death note’. I loved ‘death note’… but I can’t look at it the same way after seeing/reading ‘bakuman’, for this book is very blatant about how it feels you should see and treat woman.

    It’s an interesting watch when discussing interpretation.

  5. Karandi says:

    I like looking at both. I enjoy finding out what the author intended and particularly with older literary works I like knowing what the author’s circumstance were and why a particular view might have been present. I may not agree with their view given my own circumstances but I find it interesting to look at the context that produced the work. That said, I’m not looking to agree with everything I watch or read given I really enjoy works that explore characters or ideas that I do not ever want to come near me in real life. I like my fiction to explore different perspectives and ideas. Occasionally I’ll watch something that personally annoys me but even then I have the choice to not watch it.

    • Irina says:

      Oh I didn’t even get into bias. I mean just exposing yourself to works that confirm what you already believe is super boring in my opinion

  6. I agree entirely. A work can be sexist etc. even if the author is a woman/didn’t intend it that way/etc. etc. I don’t really see it in Shield Hero myself but I guess it could be perceived that way? Excellent and thought provoking post though!

  7. foovay says:

    SNARKY WARNING>

    Personally, I am really tired of creative works of all types being labelled and disparaged for being sexist, racist, or whatever -ist squicks your triggers. If you don’t like something, don’t watch/read/listen to it. See, isn’t that easy?

    Companies create anime/movies/books for profit. If enough people do not buy or watch that product, they don’t profit, and they won’t repeat that experience.

    Real world check. There are actual people in the real world who are sexist, racist, power hungry and sometimes downright mean. Most of them are in power, because that’s pretty much their thing. Overcoming this power structure makes for a great story – but in telling it you do kind of have to mention why you want to overcome them – thus rape, sexism, and other -isms are liable to be in your story. Even in a fictional world, a fantasy world, you have to have an antagonist to your protagonist and if the “enemy” isn’t a bad sort, why are they your enemy?

    Second reality check. You may want to sit down.

    Writers, especially professional writers, are in it for the MONEY. They have bills, just like everyone else, and they chose to use their creative talent to pay them. However, this means they have to write something that SELLS. Often they have a boss (especially in something like anime) who calls them up and says things like “Can you have three gay sex stories of 1000 words each with students and oh yes, sports somehow involved done by noon today?” (Yes, something my agent once called and said to me – and I did it)

    I am a writer. And I’m a woman, in case you didn’t know. I wrote violent, rough sex gay male sex stories on commission. The people BUYING them loved them – and firmly believed that I was in fact a gay man who liked rough sex because the stories were so REAL. My agent found it hilarious.

    Is that what I really want to write? Not really. But it sold and it paid the bills. Am I into rough gay (male) sex – um..not properly equipped. My point being that writers write what they are paid to write. Which comes back to – don’t buy that anime and if it ceases to be profitable it won’t be made any more. If it is still made, face it kiddo – somewhere out there are people who enjoy it and pay for it.

    Sorry the real world is such an -ism place. Really, I truly am. I’m an old flower child. I want life to be all rainbows and unicorns, too. In which case I suggest you watch gentle slice of life anime like… I dunno…Natsume, Fruits Basket, they’re out there.

    And if you start watching something and it has an -ism in it that upsets you, turn it off.

    If you do not turn it off – face that fact that you are part of “the problem”. You’re watching it, aren’t you.

  8. wingking78 says:

    Just yesterday I was reading about a twitter meltdown involving an upcoming teen fantasy novel. Apparently some African-American authors read the advance reader copy and expressed concerns with certain ways that slavery was depicted in this world, and twitter’s reaction to that was very predictable. I won’t recap all the drama, but what I found most interesting (and relevant to the topic) was that the author, an Asian woman, admitted that she was thinking primarily about the issue of present-day human trafficking in Asia when she wrote the book, and failed to consider how the version of slavery she presented could be interpreted from the American cultural context. So in essence, while explaining her own point of view, she also fully accepted “death of the author” in acknowledging the validity of her critics’ experience with it. And yes, she asked her publisher to delay releasing the book until she can make revisions.

    In regards to the other issue, I never try to allow my opinion of an author to color my opinion of their work, beyond acknowledging if/when something problematic finds its way into their work itself. I’ve always been a huge fan of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories, for instance – they’re great sword-and-sorcery fantasy adventures. But Robert E. Howard was also undeniably a product of his time and place, early 20th century Texas, which means that casual racism sometimes leaks into his stories. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading his stuff, but I’m going to read it “eyes open,” if you will, and not pretend the issue doesn’t exist. Does that make sense?

    • Irina says:

      It does and I generally agree. I think it gets trickier when the author is still alive and reading their work is sponsoring the and occasionally a lifestyle you happen to disagree with. I don’t have an answer. I’m a fan of classical authors and artists, most of which would probably have me burned at the stake if I did math in my head…

  9. Dewbond says:

    Art and anything cannot wholly be divested from the era and time it was made it. Shield Hero coming out during this political climate, where sexual abuse and rape allegations (true or not) is a raw vein probably didn’t do it any favors.

    However, it is important, at least to me, that I watch a show without bringing in my personal politics or views, and that I don’t dismiss a show simply because it didn’t cater to my personal taste. Whether you stick with the show or not is wholly up to you, but looking at something like Shield Hero (Or Goblin Slayer, or Uzamaid, or High School DxD) and going “Nope, this doesn’t reinforce my hot button ideals” and then calling it shit, simply isn’t fair, or frankly rational.

    Then again, we also have to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, people who may have had different life experience than ourselves. Frankly it’s just too much and I watch anime for the fun of it, and the titties..

    • Irina says:

      I understand and accept that there’s always going to be a subjective element to anime criticism. Some people call everything shit, others tend to be more measured but in the end, most people don’t enjoy works which seem to glorify ideals they find painful.

  10. moyatori says:

    Oh boy, I had a debate with a professor on this topic. Although I argued that authorial intention DOES matter, I do agree with your post, and that the author’s work takes on life of its own.

    As a literature student, I find myself phrasing every tiny discovery I made as a deliberate sign of the author’s genius. A lot of the times, I don’t even believe myself when I say that. So often though, a professor can use “the author couldn’t have intended this” as a counterargument that invalidates your entire point if you’re writing an essay. My points on postcolonial implications of Ovid’s Metamorphoses didn’t do well, for example, because postcolonialism isn’t supposed to a thing back then. Maybe that’s just because of the format of an undergraduate essay though?

    • Irina says:

      On a much much smaller scale, I find the comments on my blog to often take on a completely unexpected form and readers have their own interpretation of a thesis or take my the ideas I put forward in direction I had never imagined. And I’m right here to guide and impose authorial intent yet it’s still only one aspect of the experience ad arguably not a particularly important one.
      For instance, this post had nothing to do with sexism or racism or social justice, it was just the first example that came to mind….

  11. Merlin says:

    Excellent points, well said! 🙂

    Of course the entire fiasco over the show’s supposed sexism is completely contrived and baseless, but it’s also absurd to suggest that, as you put it, one’s DNA determines anything about their morality. Hitler was partially Jewish, and look what he did. There are black and Asian racists as surely as there are white ones. And women can be every bit as sexist as men. And that’s just the start.

    It’s not what you got, but how you use it. Meaning, it’s not your DNA, it’s your choices.

  12. Fred Heiser says:

    I believe in the death of the author unless the author refuses to die. When the author comes out to instruct on what he she intended, I have to accept that.

    What if an author is merely placing the story within an existing reality and that reality has sexist or racist elements. They then go on with the storyline of happy people going on with their lives and NOT suffering greatly from those elements.

    Does that make them sexist or racist? Or are they merely documenting the everyday reality of the people who live in such a world?

    Anime, IMHO, exists to entertain. Nothing more. I give brownie points to those who can entertain and enlighten but I can enjoy a lack of preaching just as much

    • Irina says:

      Personally I don’t think it matters whether the author is or isn’t sexist or racist. I’m very much the type that separates art from artists. To me the point is if you, the viewer finds the work racist. And of course you can still enjoy racist works.
      I disagree that fiction (of which anime is a part) exists merely to entertain (that’s a whole other post mind you). In short I think as a species we’ve pu so much time, energy and effort into fiction (and entertainment for that matter of fact) because they are an important developmental tool. And that’s why we should use them to explore sometimes uncomfortable ideas.
      Arguably if it was only for entertainment then it would seem pointless to put in elements that you know will hurt some of your audience. That’s just my view on it of course.

  13. Scott says:

    Great write up, Irina! This is such a complicated issue and I am not completely sure where my own thoughts are about this. I do think that an adaptation of a work of it’s own, because it’s an interpretation of what the author was trying to say from a group of people.

    All in all though, I am not sure what I think when it comes to anything further then that.

  14. Oncasteve says:

    Oh, this is so good, thanks for posting! I’ve agonized over this question for the past few months.

    Whenever anything about “The Death of the Author” comes up in online discussion, I think it’s helpful to contextualize it and encourage people to actually read it (link at the bottom, it’s very short!). Barthes is arguing against what he calls the “Author’s empire,” the dominant form of literary criticism of his time that focused explaining a text via the writer’s biography. He says that such an approach has the serious limitation that the reader’s own context will also influence their interpretation of a work. As a result, there are as many interpretations as readers, rather than a single “tyrannical” one imposed by the author’s intentions.

    However, the problem with “Death of the Author” comes with the forceful, sometimes-hyperbolic tone Barthes takes when arguing against the “Author’s empire.” Maybe ironically, the strength of Barthes’ writing opens the article itself is open to the same forces of interpretation as the literary fiction it analyzes; when taken literally, some of his statements can sound absurd. A few out-of-context examples:

    1) “Once the Author is gone, the claim to ‘decipher’ a text becomes quite useless.” Is Barthes saying that every interpretation has equal validity? No, in context only that no single true interpretation exists.
    2) “criticism (even “new criticism”) should be overthrown along with the Author.” Is Barthes saying that no one can criticize literature? No, in context only that no critical theory/lens can arrive at a perfect interpretation every time.
    3) “the writer can only imitate a gesture … never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing” Is Barthes saying that authors don’t literally create their works? No, in context only that a work is a product of the surrounding culture as filtered through the author’s mind rather than some kind of pure expression of that mind itself.

    More reasonable interpretations can still exist, more relevant critical theories/lenses can still exist, and yes, authors can still exist. Barthes simply opposes the human tendency to seek a single “theological” truth in literature. Instead, we should tolerate more than one possible correct answer. For all of Barthes’ hyperbole, I think that’s a fairly modest claim.

    In the context of The Rising of the Shield Hero then, everyone is free to their own interpretation. But we can still say some of them are wrong… (and in this case, I agree with you. Though using biographical information as a critical lens can have its uses, I just don’t think it works when assessing sexism)

    http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf

  15. marthaurion says:

    i agree with the idea that dismissing a work as sexist because of a female author is a flawed argument. i dont particularly have a strong stance on the shield hero thing other than that i think the show is fine.

    i have been rethinking my stance on the idea that anime should be judged independent of source material, though. i did adopt that stance when i started out, but im calling it into question now that ive started reading light novels. ive noticed that there are certain quirks that ive often called out in anime adaptations that are perfectly logical when you consider the context. so, i cant really in good faith blame the author for that. and if im judging the adaptation as an independent work of art, then what the heck do i know about filmography?

    • Irina says:

      I think the main reason I review anime as stand alone works is purely practical. I don’t have the time to read/play/watch all the relevant media for franchises before I talk about them and it would be very uneven if I only did it for some series.

      • marthaurion says:

        no, i totally understand that. im more getting at it from a compartmentalization point of view. when i started out, i often said to myself that i judge the anime for its own merits, but nowadays i dont believe i can convince myself that i can segregate the two in my head if ive already read the source before watching the anime.

  16. Keiko says:

    Interesting post. Personally, I think you need a bit of both. Sometimes contextual information, espeically the author’s life or beliefs, helps to enrich our understanding of a given work. Having said that, there is a fine line because such a reading can obscure the text and give a false impression of what’s actually being said. Normally, I’ll interpret a work wothout knowing the author behind it and then research the text to see how context can help enlighten a text.
    Great article though. 😊 Have to say it gave me a flashback to my second year of uni because I had to study this theory in way too much depth. 😂

    • Irina says:

      Then you are in a much better place to discuss the issue. I must say I often know very little about the authors political leanings unless they are illustrated in the works. Maybe I should make more of an effort to study up but some of these guys are so reclusive.

      • Keiko says:

        Hahaha no, you did a oretty good job! 😊 I read around the novels I read but never manga or anime so I’m in the place as you on that one. Honestly, the only reason I’ve never done any research on them is because then it would be like the study I do for my course and I’d rather not have that overlap. Plus, as you say, it’s so difficult to find anything on them. That being said, we have enjoyed the mediums without the authors background or views influencing our own views so I think it’s fine to continue that way. Just that if such readings are brought up, they should be taken with a pinch of salt because at the end of the day, even if we refer to an authors history and beliefs, we are still interpreting them unless we quote directly what they’ve said without bias.
        It’s such a complicated debate with no end really.

  17. Cytrus says:

    Using the author to enrich your understanding of a work is okay. Either way, your interpretation is your responsibility. But in those cases, you first take the time to improve yourself, either in the sense of learning new useful information that the author would have known or through an exercise in empathy, and then carry out the interpretation.

    Using the author to dismiss a work is worthless. It is just an excuse not to put effort into the interpretation and not feel bad about it because the work “wasn’t worth it to begin with”.

    On the “woman-made” argument, people are quick to shoot it down for the reasons you mention, but few actually consider why the argument is so often made. It is because, regardless of its actual validity, it works. Women creators get a free pass or more respect for so many things. I bring up that the author is female for works which contain nudity, controversial relationships and the like, and the audience is immediately more at ease. Those tropes are allowed to have meaning and depth when written by a woman, but are automatically predatory and objectifying when written by a man. Stupid and annoying, but that’s the perceived truth right now.

    • Irina says:

      This may depend on your audience. I have not see the same credibility bias as my audience seems fairly indifferent to gender

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