Explaining just why fighting for more diversity in media is important can be difficult and contentious. For some people, it feels like forcing writers at figurative gunpoint to cram in LGBT and POC characters everywhere and anywhere; a perception that actual bigots love to weaponize for outrage. Even more awkward is when media does include these kinds of characters, only for us to turn around and say that it’s offensive. Today, we’re dealing with one such case.
Let me be perfectly clear though.
This article is not intended to accuse Gargantia or any of its creators of being homophobic. The scenes we’ll be analyzing are homophobic, but they are just a moment within a greater whole. It’s a moment in the anime that disappointed me, but I greatly enjoyed the series overall and did not write all this just to tell people that it’s problematic and should therefore be avoided, reviled, and canceled. This is purely intended for conversation and to display how even great, modern series can accidentally stumble their way into some pretty fucked up content.
Episode 5 of Gargantia of the Verdurous Planet is appropriately called “Calm Day”. After the initial hostilities of the early episodes, the cast is afforded some relaxation as their massive ships makes anchor for the day and the main characters sneak in a break from work. Sunbathing, swimming, barbeque, it’s a good time all around.
However, the calmness of the day is shattered when main character Ledo is asked to run a quick errand, which soon takes him to seedier parts of the ship’s inner structure. As he gets lost in the darkest quarters with little hope of finding his way out, Ledo is suddenly approached by a trio of unnamed characters. They immediately begin to prey on young Ledo, praising his looks, touching him, and forcing themselves on our underage protagonist.
Now, I can’t speak for who these people are or what gender identity they go by. The show doesn’t characterize or expand on them at all, but it’s fairly clear what they are supposed to represent: denigrating stereotypes of LGBT people. People with masculine builds in female clothes, thick make-up mixed with unkempt body and facial hair. They are mocking depictions of transvestites, transgender people, and flamboyant homosexuals.
More scathing than their appearance is their role in the story. They have no greater significance, no names, and no context. Their only reason to exist is for the sake of a joke that plays on 20th century anti-gay sentiments; the fear that middle-aged gay perverts were prowling the streets looking for young boys to rape. A joke that the anime is so proud of that it is repeated twice more throughout the episode, with Ledo’s final encounter leaving him with torn clothes and kiss-marks all over his face and chest.
I feel that it’s important to note that I am not insulted by this content, but disappointed. I recognize that it’s framed as a lighthearted gag in an episode that is just all comedy. I am just severely unimpressed with the supposed joke.
This caricature of LGBT+ people goes far back. I’ve seen my old man laugh his socks off at movies about such transvestites and even in anime the stereotype has lingered for a while. Gainax’s 2002 anime original Abenobashi comes to mind, which features the similarly-promiscuous Ms. Aki; another character who frequently flirts with underage protagonists.
These tropes and the jokes they serve are ancient, so seeing them rehashed yet again is already disappointing on its own. But we also can’t ignore that, in spite of comedic intentions, Gargantia’s depictions of LGBT+ people reinforces real-world stereotypes. They reflect real beliefs that continue to live in people and which have been used to justify the oppression, abuse, and even murder of queer individuals. It’s a low blow and for what purpose? A cringeworthy attempt at comedy?
Anime has a bizarre track record when it comes to LGBT+ depictions. Lesbian relationships are seen as cute and adorable; yuri influences are allowed to prosper and even make their way into mainstream anime. But that seems hypocritical, coming from a country where same-sex relationships are not legally recognized. A country where LGBT+ people are frequently not afforded the same protections as other citizens. The medium loves to fetishize queerness for yuri and yaoi, but when a normal anime tries its hands at gay characters, this is what we get.
Sure, there are better examples of LGBT+ characters in anime. Representation has been done right at times, often in the most unexpected of places. However, embarrassing depictions like we have discussed here continue to exist in equal numbers. That is why this struggle is worth enduring; to call out anime like Gargantia when they parrot bigoted sentiments, and fight for a future where everybody benefits from a more diverse medium.