Anime & Sex-Role Adoption

Originally submitted to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2019.

This is a research paper regarding the role anime has in sex-role adoption. While not formally published yet, any usage of the content herein requires proper citation.

That said, the language used is very formal, even for this blog. If a sufficient amount of attention is given to this, I’ll publish another article detailing the results in simpler terms and what their implications are.

A forward thanks to Irina, an excellent writer with a brilliant blog. This paper was, in part, inspired by her post: Does Animation Distill a Serious Message.

Japanese animated shows exhibit a limited promotion of sex-role stereotypes; less than that of contemporary television. While studies do posit that television is culpable in sex-role adoption as will be further explained, they don’t reference Japanese shows explicitly. This is important as a nation’s media is indicative of its culture. Yet, to what extent is a point of contention given that, as explained by Matthes, “Most research on gender stereotypes in television advertising is based on single-country studies” (2016, p. 314). Due to this, no comparison is available which directly demonstrates the differing effect of culture. Regardless, past literature and a modern analysis of popular animations as of 2019 prove the initial claim. Thus, literature regarding the effect of television, its contents, as well as the effect of animated shows in particular will be explained.

On a grander scale, television’s potential effects on a child’s identity are known. Given the abundance of gender stereotypes in television, as evidenced by Matthes’ data who describes the situation as a “global pattern of gender stereotyping” (2016, p. 325), children are exposed to the risk of sex-role adoption. Sex-role adoption is a process by which a person’s identity is modeled by their perception of another individual of the same sex. Ellithorpe explains this in broader terms, relating it to gender and race: “One way that adolescents may explore and formalize their identities is by selecting media content with characters that match their racial and gender identity categories” (2016, p. 1433). This adoption isn’t necessarily harmful dependent on the role model; however, given that in regards to television they adopt stereotypes, these perceived role models are inappropriate. A commonality among many television shows is the portrayal of males as dominant and females as complementary, an infamous sex-role stereotype that’s still prevalent, demonstrating their inappropriate nature (Durkin, 1985, p. 325). 

Animations are not exempt from having sex-role stereotypes either. Disney movies are a poignant example with Coyne stating that “There are still strong messages of traditional gender role stereotypes for girls and women (e.g., physically weak, affectionate, nurturing, helpful, fearful, submissive) [since the release of Disney Princess movies in 1937]…” (2016, p. 1910). Moreover, animations may pose an additional risk because of their medium. Typically, animations are thought to be safe for the consumption of children (Coyne, 2016, p. 1910) because that is the demographic normally targeted. Such logic then dictates that many parents aren’t aware of the implications sex-role stereotypes have or their inclusion in cartoons, or perhaps both. While Disney movies were discussed, not animated shows, the conclusion that sex-role adoption may stem from animations applies. Rather, the argument for animation’s ability to contribute to sex-role adoption is enhanced due to the relationship the two share. Disney movies, given their profit and evidenced by their continual growth in the modern era, have and continue to be an inspiration for a plethora of artists. It would follow then that artists would seek to mimic and include similar themes reminiscent of the popular product to drive sales.

Generally, Japanese television is not reflective of the rest of the world’s global stereotyping. Matthes note that, “In all countries but Japan, the association of female primary characters with toiletries, beauty products, personal care, and cleaning products can be confirmed” (2016, p. 318). This difference can be explained through two conclusions, both beneficial to stopping sex-role stereotypes: (1) the perceived importance of a stereotypically beautiful physical appearance is decreasing for women, and (2) the use of makeup and other miscellaneous beauty products is becoming acceptable for men. The latter is doubly important considering the following quote: “Research has found that boys can learn gender stereotypes from watching female heroines in the media and vice versa” (Coyne, 2016, p. 1910). Thus, exposure to sex-role stereotypes is dangerous for both men and women. They will formulate a misguided expectation of reality and act according to that if left unchecked. 

To fully analyze whether there are sex-role stereotypes in Japanese animated shows, the top fifty most popular animations (MAL, 2019) were viewed by the author of this paper. All fifty shows portrayed multiple female characters free of stereotypes as a side character. Although, out of the fifty shows, only forty-six were observed to have female characters who took a main role in the narrative. Of the forty-six, five were noted as having one or more sex-role stereotyped traits such as deference to a male or the inability to fight. In all fifty shows, male characters took a main role. The overlap of characters in a main role can be explained by the inclusion of multiple main characters within a show. Of the fifty male main characters, three met the definition of stereotypical. Most male main characters actually had one or more of these characteristics: unathletic, shorter than average height, a fear of fighting, and social anxiety.

The aforementioned data translates to 92% of shows having a female main character and 11% of female main characters exhibiting stereotypes. 100% of shows had a main male characters and only 6% exhibited stereotypes. Lauzen writes, “Females accounted for 42% of major characters on broadcast network, cable and streaming programs [in 2017]” (2017, p. 2). The difference between the 92% and 42% is evident. Additionally, the mentioned percentages of stereotypes for both male and females characters doesn’t take into account the parodic nature of multiple shows or the subversion of the stereotype therein. That said, arguments can be posed about whether parodies contribute to the problem of sex-role adoption and so the percentages will remain unchanged. 

This paper contends that the analyzation of the top fifty most popular animations of all time is more representative of the medium than the currently airing popular animations. The top fifty of all time represent a range of data from 1996 to 2017 as well as a consensus given by the majority of watchers. It can also be stated that these fifty are of significant impact in the minds of viewers, evidenced by their continued popularity over time. Looking at currently airing popular animations wouldn’t provide a large enough sample size worthy of analyzation. Any data observed from it would be insignificant, regardless of whether it finds Japanese animation to have a positive, negative, or no correlation to sex-role adoption at all. Considerations for future studies; however, may wish to look at the top ten most popular animations per year from the late 90s to 2019. Such data may indicate a fluctuation in cultural objectives and perceived sex-roles in Japanese society.

Further arguments can be made that the categorization of genres within Japanese shows as a whole contributes to the overarching problem of stereotypes. Besides conventional genres such as action, horror, or mystery, there are also genres such as shoujo and shounen. When entertainment is marketed as being of the shoujo genre, it targets the demographic of young females. Conversely, when marketed to the shounen genre, it targets young males. These two terms are used to describe genres, but on their own also translate directly to “young girl” and “young boy.” No literature has documented the effect this labeling has; however, shoujo and shounen can be seen as a way for the audience to search for their interest. At the least, it isn’t indicative of malicious intent or put in place for the purpose of restricting people. Nevertheless, this paper recognizes that such labels may have unintended consequences and concedes that, although not available, alternatives should be considered.

This freedom of sex-role stereotypes generally runs counter to Japanese society, one that is very much a patriarchy. Even still, this can be theorized to be purposeful; artists and animators expressing their true feelings through animation because they are unable to in real life. External factors also include the shedding of xenophobic tendencies on the part of the Japanese post-World War II where the country found itself isolated; now beginning to lead towards more liberal tendencies and gradually becoming increasingly more open to outsiders. These liberal tendencies may pose a shift from the aforementioned patriarchal system to one that is more equal (Rush, 2015). 

Japanese animated shows aren’t free from sex-role stereotypes. A number of shows, past and present, do include an unrealistic portrayal of men and women; sexualizing them to provide a fantasy. The difference is in the proportion of shows which do it, especially compared to the previously mentioned statistics of broadcast network, cable and streaming programs as provided by Lauzen (2017). Compound this lack of stereotypes with the portrayal of strong and independent women, as well as diversity in gender, and perhaps Japan’s animated shows may do more than simply avoiding promoting sex-roles. Nevertheless, it stands that Japanese animated shows do a much better job of portraying both sexes than contemporary television. 


Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A., & Birkbeck, V. (2016). Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children. Child Development, 87(6), 1909–1925.

Davidson, E. S., Yasuna, A., & Tower, A. (1979). The Effects of Television Cartoon on Sex-Role Stereotyping in Young Girls. Child Development, 50(2), 597–600.

Durkin, K. (1985). Television and sex‐role acquisition 1: Content.

Ellithorpe, M., & Bleakley, A. (2016). Wanting to See People Like Me? Racial and Gender Diversity in Popular Adolescent Television. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 45(7), 1426–1437.

Lauzen, M. (2017). Boxed In 2016-17: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television.

Click to access 2016-17_Boxed_In_Report.pdf

Lazar, B. A. (1994). Under the Influence: An Analysis of Children’s Television Regulation. Social Work, 39(1), 67–74. Retrieved from:

Matthes, J., Prieler, M., & Adam, K. (2016). Gender-Role Portrayals in Television Advertising Across the Globe. Sex Roles, 75(7–8), 314–327.

MyAnimeList (MAL). (2019). Top Anime by Popularity

Rush, M. (2015). Theorising fatherhood, welfare and the decline of patriarchy in Japan.  International Review of Sociology, 25(3), 403–414.

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