Bit of a personal one today, but I think it’s worth saying.
Calling someone an “anime avatar” is not an argument. Referring to “the anime avatars in my mentions” does not automatically cause your ill-advised social media post to suddenly become correct. Attempting to make the term “anime avatar” a slur does not make you look progressive, woke or smart.
If you judge someone by anything other than their behaviour and conduct, you are bigoted by the very strictest definition of the word. Let’s ponder this in a bit more detail.
My specific reason for posting about this right now stems from some interactions I witnessed on Twitter yesterday. Popular retro gaming YouTuber Kim Justice was frustrated at one of her friends being “monstered” as a result of some three-year old auto-tweets that showed them “Liking” provocative, seemingly right-wing content on YouTube. The person in question had shown no indication that they actually agreed with the content in question — particularly recently — but these automatic, context- and commentary-free tweets from 2016 were seemingly enough to publicly shame them for “supporting hate speech”.
I don’t want to get too hung up on these specifics because there’s a broader point to talk about here, but there are a couple of things to consider in this particular situation.
Firstly, I have known multiple people to be unaware that YouTube had the option to automatically share anything you clicked “Like” on to your other social media platforms. Google actually removed this feature in January of 2019, but prior to that it was all too easy to accidentally activate it and inadvertently share everything you did on YouTube to Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
Secondly, clicking “Like” on a video does not necessarily mean you condone it. It may just mean you want to come back to it. Clicking “Like” on YouTube automatically and quickly adds the video to a playlist that you can return to at any time. Clicking “Dislike” does not do the same thing. Yes, YouTube also has other features that fulfil the same function, but for many people, a quick “Like” is the fastest way to be able to refer back to something.
With that in mind, judging someone for “supporting hate speech” based on automatic tweets is nonsense. I don’t know the poster in question so I can’t comment further on their political beliefs, but Kim noted that she knew him well, raised her own concerns over those tweets when she originally saw them a few years back, and actually had a discussion with him that revealed how he actually felt. That’s how things should be.
This situation is just one of many examples of “cancel culture”, where certain portions of the Internet collectively decide that someone is a “bad” person for whatever reason, and then systematically proceed to try and ruin that person’s online reputation, interpersonal relationships and life. The ultimate goal? To run them off the Internet at best; to make them kill themselves at worst. And yes, the latter happens; the most recent high-profile example of this happening was the death of Aquaria and Night in the Woods developer Alec Holowka after some very public allegations of sexual harassment that, to date, do not appear to have been proven and probably never will be at this point.
I happened to witness the tail end of this as Kim made a public tweet about her frustration over the situation, and I empathised, posting a reply about how much I disliked “cancel culture”. The first reply I got was from someone not involved with the conversation, who responded “don’t be a bigot, Anime Avatar, and you won’t get ‘cancelled'”.
A few things here. My avatar on Twitter is Midori, the site mascot; not technically “anime”, but I can understand the misconception. My real name and the website address is prominently displayed as my account handle. My bio explains what I do and gives no indication that I am in any way “bigoted”. There is plenty of information you can quickly and easily look at to understand who I am, what I do and how I feel about various things.
While this site is written from the perspective of a Western heterosexual male — I can’t change who I am! — I make a point of exploring a variety of viewpoints and media types to be as inclusive as possible. Over the last few years, I’ve written about games that are particularly suitable for a young female audience, games that feature homosexual female couples, games that feature homosexual male couples, games with openly bisexual characters and plenty of other tickboxes on the “diversity checklist” besides.
But no. I’m “Anime Avatar”.
This needs to stop. It is not an argument.
I mention this specific situation because it’s just the most recent example of this happening, but it’s a constant occurrence on the Internet in general, and social media in particular. Remember the discussion over respecting one another after the Gun Gun Pixies review a few weeks back? The writer of the piece I was responding to immediately complained about “anime avatars in his mentions” rather than attempting to engage with anyone. Remember how I talked about how we need to get better at talking about sex? Critics of it responded to the fact that people who appreciated and shared it had “anime avatars” rather than actually addressing any of the points I made. I could go on. But I won’t. For now.
Instead, let’s contemplate why this might happen and why it’s a problem.
A 2015 study by Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar found that people do indeed judge one another based on something as simple as their online avatar… but that this isn’t something we should be particularly pleased about.
Fong and Mar asked about 100 people to choose avatars for themselves using the now-defunct site WeeWorld. Half of them were asked to create an avatar using their own creativity, and the other half were specifically asked to try and reflect their personality as accurately as possible. Despite this, there were no obvious differences in how people approached the task, suggesting that people in general try to represent themselves as accurately as they can when creating an avatar.
The 100 participants then filled out a questionnaire that measured their “Big Five” personality traits: openness, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism, and this information was then cross-referenced with the avatar they created.
At this point, Fong and Mar brought in a larger group of about 2,000 participants who were asked to rate their perception of the personality characteristics based purely on the avatars, along with if they actually wanted to interact with the person in question.
The larger group made clear assumptions, particularly when it came to gender; men were assumed to be less conscientious and open to new experiences, for example. The study proved these assumptions to be inaccurate in most cases based on the personality data, however; the only traits that the larger group successfully assessed to a limited degree were extraversion and agreeableness, while others showed no real correlation.
The study noted that while context-free avatars had a noticeable effect on whether or not people decided they wanted to actually interact with a person, the assumptions made were not particularly well-correlated with that individual’s actual personality, suggesting that people tend to overestimate their ability to accurately judge based on a tiny JPG someone uploaded to represent themselves. Who’d have thought it?
Where did the assumption that all anime avatars are bad come from, though? Knowyourmeme suggests that it dates back to some forum posts from around 2012 or so, but a particularly noteworthy piece of the puzzle comes from a New York Magazine article from 2015, attempting to explain “how anime avatars on Twitter help explain politics online in 2015”.
This is kind of bizarre, though, since the article in question is filled with purely anecdotal evidence — mostly context-free tweets — rather than any actual evidence. And it certainly doesn’t explain anything, despite the headline.
“Because they don’t show actual identifiable human faces, anime avatars carry a strong whiff of ‘anonymous troll’,” writes the piece’s author Max Read. “They are also — and I say this as someone who can sing from memory the theme to Neon Genesis Evangelion — nerdy. If egg avatars are signs to Twitter, and likely Internet, novices, anime avatars would seem to be the opposite: the signs of people who have spent, or are spending, too much time online.”
Read doesn’t make any convincing arguments in his piece, but it seems a lot of people have taken similar attitudes to heart. And it’s honestly difficult to understand where this has come from.
Anime and anime-inspired works make up some of the most creative, interesting media out there, appealing to a broad spectrum of people of all ages, genders and sexualities. While Japan as a country is often criticised for less-than-progressive attitudes towards such things, its popular media demonstrates that those with more artistic temperaments are keen to break the bonds of social conventions and allow people to be who they want to be, expressing themselves as they see fit.
Anime is a medium in which we have an incredibly diverse array of stories to enjoy. One moment you can be enjoying a wholesome tale of teenage girls working out at the gym for no other reason rather than to better themselves; the next you can find yourself getting emotionally invested in the complicated interpersonal relationships of a group of nerds; after that you can enjoy tales of new lives in other worlds, people struggling to understand themselves, people coming to terms with grief, dynamic space operas and pretty much anything else you might be able to think of.
And anime-adjacent media is the same, too. Here on MoeGamer we’ve explored tales of shinobi students learning their place in the world and preparing for an inevitable battle; a young man following his rather mundane dream, supported by the people important to him; a group of people who have each been through their own considerable trauma coming together to support one another; the personification of the popular video game console manufacturers struggling to deal with the generational changeover; learning to live with a life-changing injury; even learning another language in order to pursue a relationship.
There are as many reasons for getting involved with anime and anime-adjacent media as there are people interested in such things. For me, as I’ve spoken about previously, it’s about feeling like I “belong”, like there are works that really “speak to me”, like there are creators who understand what sort of person I am. For others, it’s about pure escapism — leaving the mundane and the frustrating behind in favour of the colourful, the fantastic, the impossible. For yet others, it’s about the technical proficiency or artistic achievements of those at the top of their craft; and for others still, yes, it might even be about sexual gratification — which is perfectly valid.
The one thing these people would come together on is wanting to express their love and passion in some way. And an avatar is the perfect means of doing that. It’s a simple, non-verbal signal that allows you to show the things that are important to you; it’s the online equivalent of wearing a favourite band or show’s T-shirt. It’s a simple way of recognising people who might be into the same things of you. And it’s a signifier of what can often be a wonderful, welcoming, supportive, articulate and intelligent community — particularly if you step outside the cesspool of Twitter and onto more verbose platforms such as here on WordPress.
When I worked as a teacher, the number one rule of classroom behaviour management was that you should focus on a student’s moment-to-moment behaviour rather than making assumptions about them as a person.
This is sound advice for life. You can’t judge someone based on their appearance, or assume that they are always going to act in the exact same way, because there are so many complicated factors at play that change from day to day.
The kid who was climbing your bookshelves yesterday because he was frustrated at the declining relationship between his parents might demonstrate himself to be an artistic genius today as he figures out the things he wants to express and how. The kid who appears to be arrogantly lording it over the rest of the class might actually be struggling with crippling social anxiety, with their silent terror at unstructured interactions just coming across as aloofness.
But no. The anime avatar is a universal symbol of bigotry and hatred, if certain quarters of the Internet are to be believed.
It doesn’t make any sense.
And it needs to stop.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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