Last week, I had the dubious honor of getting quoted in the same news article as Nazi Richard Spencer. Here’s Why There’s Anime Fan Art Of President Trump All Over Your Facebook is Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick’s attempt to make sense of the undeniable ties between anime fandom and the alt right, and figure out why that might be.
As usual, the answer is a lot more complicated than anyone expected. My take boils down to this: long before they were hotbeds of politics, sites like 4chan were initially created for talking about anime. When alt right rhetoric began to pop up on the forums we used to talk about anime, we were already there, hence the cultural intermingling.
Only, I’m not sure that my viewpoint got expressed perfectly in the article:
Lauren Orsini, a journalist who has written for outlets like CNN, Kotaku, and Forbes and specializes in Western anime fandom, told BuzzFeed News anime is just a niche interest that bored young men who feel isolated from society happen to like. They go to places like 2channel and 4chan to socialize over it and get radicalized.
“There’s a massive overlap between anime fans and the kind of people who never leave their computers,” she said. “And there’s an almost as big overlap between anime fans and people who spend a lot of time on online forums.”
While I think the Buzzfeed article tells an important and interesting story, it is still trying to depict a particular narrative, one that isn’t mine. I stand by my quote, but I don’t feel that the lead-in of “bored young men” is accurate for a few reasons. So let’s talk about it.
Who are anime fans?
The alt right is overwhelmingly male, but are anime fans? “I’ve never met a female anime fan in real life,” reads an Anime News Network comment in 2007.
For me, this is a surprising statement, since my anime fan history is overwhelmingly female. In middle school, I watched Revolutionary Girl Utena and Serial Experiments Lain at slumber parties. When I attended the historically all-female University of Mary Washington, our anime club was majority women. My husband, John, became the first male anime club president in school history during our senior year in 2008. So whose experience is closer to reality, that forum commenter’s, or mine?
It’s difficult to find anime fandom demographics, so I had to conduct my own study. In 2015, I requested demographic data from North America’s 10 largest conventions, and six responded. At all of them, women made up about 50% of attendance.
On the other hand, here’s a survey of Reddit’s r/anime community conducted in 2014. Only 7% of anime fans on that forum are female. In other words, what the data I collected really tells us is that when it comes to in-person anime gatherings, women are better represented.
In any case, anime creators seem to be hyper-aware of the idea that many disparate audiences consume anime, and they separate these by demographics. The categories of anime we know best—shounen, shoujo, seinen, josei—all refer to a specific age and gender demographic: boys, girls, men, women. That’s not to say that people only watch anime that matches their demographic, only that this is the initial marketing attempt.
“Bored” or savvy?
In the lead-in to my quote, I take almost as much offense to the precursor “bored” as I do to “young men.” Who doesn’t hang out in online forums because they’re bored? Instead, I think the overlap between the alt right and anime comes from anime fans’ computer literacy.
Forums like 4chan and Reddit have their own rules and idiosyncrasies. They take some experience in order to get up to speed with. You know what else is similar to that, at least until recently? Finding and watching anime.
Today anyone with a credit card can watch anime easily and cheaply on a digital streaming service like Netflix, Crunchyroll, Funimation, or Daisuki. But in the old days, when I was in high school and college, it wasn’t so simple, or above board for that matter. I could either go to places like Sam Goody and pay $30 for three episodes of Evangelion on VHS, or I could start some Limewire downloads before I left for school, and if I was lucky, they’d finish by evening. Piracy was not glamorous! (But now I’m grateful that it was such a slow, irritating slog that didn’t allow me to pirate very much, because I now feel so guilty about it that I’ve legally purchased everything I ever pirated, even if it was kind of crap.)
In other words, watching anime has long required a higher computer literacy than most Internet use requires. And its pirate legacy means the fandom has somewhat seedy origins, too. So I think anime fans are more comfortable than most people about hanging out at forums others might consider an online underbelly. The kind of places that alt right recruiters might go to spread their messages on the down low.
The Buzzfeed article focuses on young radicals who also love anime. That’s one story about an undeniable and fascinating sub-group of the fandom. But of course, most of us anime fans don’t fit into that group. We can like One Piece and not become radical nationalists, too!
My anime fan sub-group is in fact much different than the one in the article. Our politics tend to be liberal and accepting. The anime conventions I attend have things like gender neutral restrooms and introvert quiet areas. I also am part of a group blog called Anime Feminist. And even today, my community consists of mostly female fans, not male.
I don’t think the idea of anime fans as majority alt-right radicals is an accurate one. But my community doesn’t make up the majority either, not even close. There are around 20 million anime fans in America alone, and it’s impossible to discuss such a massive number as one group with common views and beliefs, other than of course “liking anime.”
Anime fandom is made up of many, many smaller groups with many, many disparate views. But it’s much easier to just attribute one set of characteristics to all of us. Ultimately, that’s why I thought it was vital to contribute to the Buzzfeed article. If we ignore the way we’re represented, then somebody else will gain control of the narrative.
Convention attendees at Anime Expo 2014, credit.