Communication Currents

Japanese Anime Heroines as Role Models for U.S. Youth

August 1, 2012
Mass Communication

How do U.S. fans interact with their favorite anime characters?  Why do some fans dress up like anime characters? Or learn to speak Japanese? We have all loved some fictional character or TV show and can remember how it felt to admire a certain character or anxiously await the next episode. But sometimes, fandom can lead to more intense experiences.

Recently, a genre of anime (Japanese animated TV shows) called shojo has become popular in the U.S.  Shojo translates to mean “girly” and this genre is created primarily by female artists, features empowered heroines, and is intended for female audiences. These narratives tell coming-of-age stories and focus on everyday life as characters attend school, play sports, do chores – and fall in love.

For example, Fruits Basket was the top-selling shojo in the U.S. and the story centered on an optimistic girl named Tohru who helped her classmates come to understand and accept themselves and others. Other popular shojo stories include high school dramas such as Ouran High School Host Club and Hayao Miyazaki’s films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and The Secret World of Arrietty – which opened in 2012, garnering approximately $14.7 million in its first two weekends in the U.S. domestic box office sales. Shojo has flourished with U.S. audiences, which is surprising since U.S.cartoons have historically failed to capture girls’ imaginations. Beyond popularity, shojo has dedicated fans who dress up like the heroines, regularly attend anime conventions, and form fan communities.

Intrigued by this intense fandom, we began to explore how these U.S. fans became so involved in shojo. Specifically, we wondered what these fans experienced as they watched shojo. To better understand these fans’ experiences, we created a survey and received 385 usable survey responses from members of shojo fan-clubs primarily in Texas.

These surveys revealed that fans experience two distinct media effects, wishful identification and parasocial relationships, and – more importantly – that these effects are interrelated for shojo fans. Wishful identification essentially means that audience members are identifying with a character they wish they were like. Identification can be a very intense experience: it is the process of losing yourself in a character, of immersing yourself in a story and seeing the world from the character’s point of view. Typically, audience members identify with characters they think they are a lot alike. However, in the case of wishful identification, audience members have this intense experience of identification not with someone similar to themselves, but with a character they think of as a role model.

A parasocial relationship is a long standing friend-like relationship that an audience member has towards a media character. For example, individuals who watch Sixty Minutes might form a parasocial relationship with one of the hosts and think of themselves as tuning in each week to hear what Andy Rooney has to say. Audience members understand that this is a one-sided relationship (to continue the above example, audience members know that Andy Rooney doesn’t know who they are), yet they imagine that if they met in the real world they could be friends, and they experience emotional, cognitive, and behavioral effects from their friend-like relationship. For example: audience members worry about the character’s future if he or she is distressed at the end of an episode, they think about the character’s future plotlines or back-story, and they often talk aloud to the character during an episode and can even directly imitate the character.  Just as we often adopt our friends’ catchphrases or signature behaviors, audience members who are experiencing a parasocial relationship may adopt the media character’s slogans or behaviors.

As we studied how U.S. shojo fans experienced their interaction with shojo, we found a link between wishful identification and parasocial relationships. First, fans who perceived their favorite heroine as a good person were more likely to develop wishful identification. This makes sense since typically we perceive good people as role models. Those who progressed from thinking the heroine was good to wishfully identifying with the heroine were then more likely to also develop a parasocial relationship with their favorite heroine. Essentially, this means that shojo fans can progress from liking a heroine, to wishfully identifying with her, and then participating in a parasocial relationship with their favorite shojo heroine.

But the connection between wishful identification and parasocial relationships can be even deeper as shojo fans’ experiences demonstrate. Parasocial relationships – like friendships – are multifaceted. Fans experience a variety of emotions, participate in maintenance behaviors (like tuning in each week, or looking the actress up online, or reading a news article about the program), and can directly imitate the media character as they experience a parasocial relationship. However, fans who progress from liking the heroine to wishfully identifying with her can then disproportionately engage in direct imitation. That is, shojo fans who wishfully identified with their favorite heroines were more likely to engage in direct imitation of the heroine than in the other parasocial experiences of emotional and maintenance behaviors.

At one level, this makes theoretical sense: if you want to be like someone, it makes sense to imitate them. However, this research is about the experience that U.S. fans have with Japanese animated characters – with 2D images, Japanese voiceovers, and English subtitles. This demonstrates the intensity and versatility of these media effects. U.S. fans can wishfully identify with characters from another culture, and this process of wishfully identifying not only makes it more likely that they will engage in a long term parasocial relationship, but that they will experience a particularly intense form of direct imitation – which explains at least some of the reasons why fans dress up like shojo characters at annual conventions across America.

In sum, our research suggests that U.S. youth are attracted to Japanese shojo anime because the central heroine characters have many positive qualities such as intelligence, kindness, and boldness that these young fans admire. This admiration leads young viewers to wishfully identify with these characters as their role models. Over a period of time, they develop close parasocial friendships with their favorite heroines by forming close emotional bonds, imitating their attitudes and behaviors, and maintaining this relationship by learning more about these characters. We believe the popularity of such Japanese empowered heroine characters amongst American youth suggests the need for similar strong positive female role models in U.S. mainstream popular entertainment as well.

About the author (s)

Sarah Kornfield

Pennsylvania State University

Doctoral Graduate

Srividya Ramasubramanian

Texas A&M University

Associate Professor