Television perpetuates outmoded gender stereotypes

Television perpetuates outmoded gender stereotypes Ai Haruna

Gender used to be binary—male and female. For better or for worse, that clear-cut simplicity is gone. Sexual orientations proliferate, each claiming its own separate identity. You’d think television, whose “tarento” pool is so open to novelty, would be at the vanguard of a fight against gender bias.

It isn’t so, says Waseda University gender researcher Junko Mitsuhashi in Shukan Kinyobi (June 12). In fact, she argues, television is mindlessly perpetuating the outmoded stereotypes.

The tip-off is a tendency she finds in her students to lump TV personalities Osugi and Ai Haruna, both of whom trade on their unconventional sexuality, in one category. And yet surely Osugi and Haruna are more different than alike. Osugi is gay, Haruna transgender. Osugi, Mitsuhashi explains, is feminine in his talk and gestures, but his clothing and his body are unmistakably masculine, whereas Haruna, though born male, is physically female following a sex change operation a decade or so ago.

Why would anyone think of them as birds of a feather? “Because TV does,” is Mitsuhashi’s answer.

The catch-all word is “okama,” which in pre-modern Japan meant first anus and later male prostitute. Today, the term refers broadly to men who do not fit traditional standards of manliness. “It has clear discriminatory implications,” says Mitsuhashi, “and yet the TV industry has not banned it.” On the contrary, some TV stars flaunt okama-hood as the source of their appeal.

Tossing Osugi and Haruna together into the okama grab-bag is to Mitsuhashi the equivalent of “an American saying, ‘To me, all Orientals look alike.’ Surely that’s offensive to many Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.”

If TV in some cases fails to make distinctions that are there, in others, Mitsuhashi finds, it insists on distinctions that shouldn’t matter. “Let’s compare,” she says, “the way TV treats Ai Haruna and Ayana Tsubaki.”

Both are TV personalities, both were born male, both were operated on and became female. And yet the personas they exploit—or have foisted on them—are very different, Haruna inhabiting a kind of sexual limbo between masculinity and femininity, Tsubaki being accepted as a woman like any other. The difference turns out to hinge on age—Haruna is 36, Tsubaki 24; Haruna had her operation in the 1990s, Tsubaki had hers in 2006.

A decade ago, gender identity disorder was little understood. Haruna, unlike Tsubaki, underwent her operation without being diagnosed as suffering from the syndrome. It seems a minor technicality, but it has had important ramifications. The diagnosis enabled Tsubaki to change her gender designation on her family register. Haruna was not so fortunate. Officially, she remains a man named Kenji. Thus, in order to thrive in a medium that imposes stereotypes even as it seems to defy them, she is obliged to play up an ambiguous sexuality which Tsubaki is free to cast aside.

“Being a mass medium, television maybe has to reflect popular mores,” Mitsuhashi concludes. “But with misconceptions proliferating concerning sexual identity, it should at least make an effort to straighten out distorted perceptions.”

  • 1

    timorborder

    A rather good article about how such people are perceived and the tendency of Japan just to lump them all together.

    On a slightly different note, it is pretty sad that these people are forced by the perceptions of those around them to become so over the top.

  • -1

    bdiego

    What is this supposed to be, Sesame Street? TV is not meant to be always educational and categorical. Sure it can help spread prejudice and ignorance, but so can any entertainment medium. And it's all too easy to lump all of TV together like this, ironically.

  • 0

    Valmain

    Japanese are all the same, lumping people together into groups like that.

  • 0

    gogogo

    Thus, in order to thrive in a medium that imposes stereotypes even as it seems to defy them, she is obliged to play up an ambiguous sexuality which Tsubaki is free to cast asid

    Welcome to Japanese TV, foreigners are treated the same in Japanese TV, have to be loud, noisy and scary plus dance around like a monkey.

  • 1

    saborichan

    It's true that J-TV loves to stereotype and make the vaguest of distinctions. And since most Talento-TV consists of a host calling out his guests for being stupid or saying something they shouldn't, it's no surprise that words like okama are plastered all over the screen.

    Ironically, J-TV will censor entire bits of footage of someone walking in a street if there's a chance it will be recognised by anyone in authority, resulting in ridiculous footage of people walking in a field of shimmering, shifting CGI or mosaic. And yet there's no censorship of blatant prejudice and the terminology that's programming viewers into believing those words are okay.

  • -1

    FryingMonkey

    WOW, dude or no dude Ayana Tsubaki is one fine bird...

  • -1

    Altria

    It's true, thanks to Haruna Ai I imagine all transgendered people to be shrill, over-excitable and intensely annoying.

  • 1

    saborichan

    You mean, all transgendered people are talents?

  • 0

    am1301

    Welcome to Japanese TV, foreigners are treated the same in Japanese TV, have to be loud, noisy and scary plus dance around like a monkey.

    Have you seen how american tv/movie portrays minority?

    Moderator: That is not relevant. Please keep the discussion focused on Japanese television.

  • 0

    FryingMonkey

    @ am1301

    LOL! you're correct, every latin is mexican, every asian is chinese and every brown guy is a terrorist ;)

  • 0

    IchyaWarFare

    ‘To me, all Orientals look alike.

    Who is Oriental? We are Asian.

    To me, all Orientals look alike.’ Surely that’s offensive to many Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.”

    Hey there, what about Filipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laos, Mongolians and well the list could go on...just a bit more anyway...

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    Wait until the Extra Terrestrial invasion comes. Then what will we all be to them? Colorful bi-ped meat puppets? Male, Female, Asian, European, African.....we are all human right? right?

  • 1

    saborichan

    I think that was the point, Ichya, I guess the speaker knows that 'Oriental' is an outdated term that emphasised the 'modern' west and 'exotic' east, when in fact the world is round and even compass directions are all actually relative, with no start point.

  • 0

    IvanCoughalot

    Tossing Osugi and Haruna together

    What an unfortunate image that calls to mind

  • 1

    ritalynn

    It's a shame. if they want to be referred to as women, then they're women. it's as simple as that. Hell they paid the money to be women, they should have the title.

  • -1

    HonestDictator

    ok... while Japanese TV may need to put in a lot more effort into respecting peoples differences etc. People need to put in a lot more effort into respecting other peoples differences.

    I have to disagree with your opinion ritalynn. If you've seen whats become of the situation where someone who says they feel like a woman walks into the womens restroom and start taking advantage of the laws that allow transgenders (or anyone that wants to claim to be one) to use whatever bathroom they please... lets just say its a mess.

    No matter how PC everyone wants to be in this day and age, certain situations will always be seen as unatural and out of the normal way of things.

  • 0

    terebiko

    gogogo, are you talking about Steve Ballmer? It is sad that there is an "Okama" group stereotype, but at least they are accepted in the entertainment industry. Probably a lot more than they might be in the US, where I think a lot of people are still very homophoebic.

  • 0

    Informed

    Japanese are all the same, lumping people together into groups like that.

    And you are no different.

  • 0

    Valmain

    And you are no different.

    I'm glad you were able to pick up the humor in that statement...weren't you?

  • 0

    Stonecoldsoba

    Probably [accepted] a lot more than they might be in the US, where I think a lot of people are still very homophoebic.

    Homophobia isn't really relevant here. Still, your point is valid if we assume it's really about transphobia.

  • 0

    Ah_so

    Japanese seem to think that gay men all fit the stereotype of a mincing, squealing ladyboy and yet they are often quite oblivious to fairly obviously gay men who do not conform to television's stereotype.

  • 0

    Tahoochi

    I don't think this is new information at all... I grew up in Canada (as an Asian) seeing TONS of Asian stereotype on TV.

  • 0

    kirakira25

    "Television perpetuates outmoded gender stereotypes" - really???! I wonder how many years of research it took Ms Mitsuhashi to come to this conclusion. Is there a most stating the bleeding obvious-ist of the week award going this week?

    Why stop at just transgender issues? If I see that childrens TV show sketch of "Boku no otosan" where he arrives home after a "hard" day at the office (and the dentist, English school, noodle bar etc) and wordlessly hands his briefcase to his wife without so much as glancing at her I am going to scream!

    And that woman trying out the fantastic new mop on the cable channel "Kore ha yoku tsukaete, benri desu NNNNEEEEEE!!!!!" AAARRRGGGHHH!

  • 0

    RMGTTF

    Now that's a dumb comparison. Yeah a transgender is obviously very different from a gay but comparing to "“an American saying, ‘To me, all Orientals look alike.’ Surely that’s offensive to many Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.” is nuts.

    It's not a fault not be be able to tell. Shall we demand everybody to be able to separate a guy from Guatemala from a Mexican or an American from an English..that just sounds like American bashing and I for sure am not American.

  • 0

    jonnyboy

    tv is made to appeal to the oyaji since they control the country. entertain the oyaji, and encourage the women to become that which is pleasing to the oyaji.

  • -1

    Beelzebub

    The parading of these weirdos on TV is just a freak show, part of the Roman Circus that Japanese are fed in the name of "entertainment." All they have to do is sashay in front of the camera -- no need to say anything intelligent, since that would fly past the viewers anyway.

  • 0

    shinjukuboy

    As a technical point, "okama" has never meant anything so specific as anus ("ketsu"), but refers to buttocks. Was this a translation problem? If so, JT, you'd better hire me!!

  • 0

    motytrah

    TV has a long way to go in Japan. It's still quite acceptable in J-Drama to smack around a woman who talks back to her husband.

    There were some signs in 2004 with Atto Hōmu Daddo (At home Dad), but even then most of the series mad the mother out to be bad for not being at home with the kids.

    Though, I will have to say, if you watch "I Survived a Japanese Game Show", the Americans act more like their stereotype in Japan than not. That's of course when you take a fairly uncultured western person and drop them into Japan with out even a guide book.

  • -1

    OhioDonna

    Their DNA profiles would classify them as male.

  • 0

    sk4ek

    While there are plenty of "regular" gay guys on TV (you straight viewers just don't know who they are), the only ones who are "out and about" openly on variety shows, etc. are the flaming queens, because they're the only ones with any real entertainment value (never mind what one may think of that value...). You get a bunch of regular gay guys up on the screen and they'd be no different from anyone else.

    The only reason all of these transgendered "tarento" have become so ubiquitous on the boob tube (no pun intended) is that at one point the government declared gender identity disorder a real "syndrome", so of course, anyone who is certifiably "sick" becomes an object of interest and--gasp--a twisted sort of compassion, and not something socially unacceptable. The fact that a lot of gays and transgendered folk also happen to be particularly good at laughing with their audience and at themselves probably makes the transition to television that much easier.

  • -1

    ritalynn

    HonestDictator, I didn't mean that anyone who thinks of themselves as a woman should be seen as one, I was talking about the ones who went all the way to have the changes to become one.

    I do understand what you were saying though, but it would be just as hard for them to used the men's room, especially if they no longer look like one.

  • -1

    Tetsujin

    Both these men/women mentioned in this article still have obviously male bone structure. Its kind of disgusting when you recognize it... I feel sorry if a guy accidentally hooks up with one of them.

  • 0

    Wakarimasen

    THis guy should have done some of his research in Motown in Roppongi. That might have changed his views a bit.

  • -1

    HonestDictator

    Actually the problem Tetsujin is when a transgender individual intentionally tries trick a straight person into accepting them as something they were not.

    If a man or woman wants to hook up with someone who is transgender there is no problem, but when a transgender person decieves a person looking for the opposite sex (born as, not surgically altered) that is the transgender persons fault for attempting to force their opinions on a person that is not interested in such a relationship. You can't force a person to feel a way they do not feel.

  • 0

    terebiko

    Sorry Stonecoldsoba, but homophobia is correct, as Osugi, who is mentioned along with Haruna, is gay, not transgender. But generally speaking, it seems to me that both of these groups, gay or trans, are more readily accepted in the J-media. Have to agree also with what sk4ek wrote.

  • -1

    Dubya

    "Transgender" is a totally bogus term for people who have had (or hope to have) themselves mutillated. If ever I run into one, I make a scene to point this out. SOMEONES has to do it! There are two genders - male and female. Anything else is just perversion.

  • 1

    fatfrenchfool

    There are two genders - male and female. Anything else is just perversion.

    biologists and the laws of nature would disagree with you. read up on it

  • -1

    HonestDictator

    As far as humans go, there is only male and female (And the occasional natural born hermaphrodite ). We're not talking about frogs/fish/reptiles on TV lol.

  • 0

    jacquii

    I agree with the comment about tv having a long way to go in Japan - I have been back after a 6 year break, & I must say that tv is as mindnumbing as ever!!! I guess that's what a humdrum day-to-day worklife will do to you...make that kind of tv interesting???

  • -1

    Azrael

    Laws of nature? Nature is pragmatic. A species that does not reproduce dies out. It's as simple as that. There is no such thing as a third sex.

    Biologists uphold the simple fact that there are only two genders, male and female, with specific biological functioning and documented differences in metabolism and even differences in reactions to medical treatments, psyche and longevity. Anything claiming to be in-between is an abnormality which is bound to happen because such "errors" are the base from which evolution happens. Biologically speaking, homosexuality is a dead-end because beings attracted to their same sex would not mate. A trans-gender trying to hide his biological sex from doctors/paramedics would be taking a tremendous risk. There is no such thing as a "third sex," the deviations are too varied in their characteristics to pretend to lump all in-betweens into a single "inter" category. Either male or female (I am not referring to the natural hermaphrodites, whose condition does not necessarily makes them homosexual, transexual or other), it's plain old nature. I would say transexuals are more of a mental condition than physical. The need for physical change by surgery is brought about by their mental condition, to supposedly "match" the inside and the outside. I think it's dangerous to indulge without exhaustive examination by psychologists and psychiatrists first, and even then a traumatic change to the body to force it to be what it is not decrees a life of hormonal treatment and the painful and taxing task of preventing the body to heal properly (as in, closing an artificially created vaginal cavity by daily use of inserted objects and medications) not to mention the long monetary costs of the hormones. It's like giving yourself a life-long condition along with lifelong treatment and medical costs. In summary, it's not for the faint of heart and such self-aggression is not absolutely necessary.

    That said, television may suck but it's also a reflection of the viewers. Ratings determine television business. The shows on TV reflect what the majority of the people want to watch. In all countries, occasionally people organize and protest when TV steps too far but the larger question for this article is, what do Japanese people want to watch? Japanese TV is highly ritualized and presents stark stereotypes we could almost call "dumbed down" for the viewers. Ultimately, the two transgenders mentioned in the article are making money out of the image they sell of themselves; the agree to be seen like this and benefit from it. That is another point to think about.

  • 0

    iraqisurvival

    In my opinion, Japanese TV is more open-minded that US channels today, the fact there are more feminine (real feminine) characters on the Japanese TV and as some people call it "parading", because Japanese society is not yet flooded by exaggerated sensitivities and censorship as in states . In sum, feminine characteristics can be easily observed in Japan than in the US, perhaps due to the fact, the religious oppression against women is not present in Japan .

    Some Americans, unfortunately, taught that everything in the US is better than anyone else, and everyone should take from them. but that's not correct. you need to understand each society has different background, history and therefore different reactions and solutions.

    For example, American TV showed a breast hardly can be seen (Janet), it was the end of the world, everyone outraged. in Britain, in Japan, that's not a big deal.

    and regarding the subject matter, the TV everywhere should display more respect to women and LGBT and minorities,

  • -1

    jonnyboy

    i'm all for transgender if that person truly wants it and understand the full physical and emotional implications of the procedure, and especially is not suffering from any emotion trauma (silence of the lambs, anyone?) but i would have to agree that the deception HonestDictator mentions is problematic and quite common (go to thailand and tell me it isn't)

  • 0

    Fadamor

    The U.S. (especially the New England area) was founded on a platform of religious zealotry. 350 years later that puritanical influence still remains and you will have any number of religious leaders loudly voice their outrage whenever something like the "wardrobe malfunction" happens in public... especially on broadcast TV.

    Japan should be thankfull for their more open society, though I guess it results in more inanity on TV.

  • 0

    Monrovian

    "There are two genders - male and female. Anything else is just perversion." Basically, yes there are two genders. But perversion? One may be attracted to members of the opposite gender or maybe not. The majority orientation of one group does not make the orientation of the minority a perversion (P.S. the world is not flat nor does the sun revolve around the earth). Scientific American published an article on July 10, 2008 regarding this so-called "perversion" that is found among 1,500 species of animals. Sex is not solely a procreative act--even among heterosexuals. "Biologically speaking, homosexuality is a dead-end because beings attracted to their same sex would not mate" was posted earlier. Obviously, this would be true if everyone were gay. But the same thing could be said for people who are asexual, or people who are born with traits that would lessen their abilities to procreate. Really though, if you're straight, get off the gays and trannies and try focusing more and being loving hetero moms and dads. May come in handy when your own child comes out of the closet some day. Regarding the gays/gals/trans etc. on TV, they add some comic relief to the mindless "entertainment" of other gender stereotypes (i.e. mindless bimbos in bikinis, greasy-hair old farts chasing after the mindless bimbos, etc.)

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