Those who haven’t checked out the Spring 2022 anime may have caught wind of the Spy x Family controversy. Is the performance problematic? Pic credit: Wit Studio and Cloverworks

Spy x Family has been a huge success since its spring 2022 release. But while fans have praised the show’s well-written and likeable cast, along with comedic elements, others have found it problematic. To say that the anime has been “canceled” is really just a manner of speaking. But is there any merit to the controversy?

A user on TikTok (who will remain unnamed in this article so as not to fan the flames) suggested that the anime sexualized Anya Forger, a child character and the youngest member of the Forger family. The “proof” the user provided for this claim was the pink blush on Anya’s cheeks when she interacts with her adoptive father Loid.

A TikTok post with a screenshot of Spy x Family character Loid holding his adoptive daughter Anya.  The caption reads, "I hate the way they sexualize the little girl in the show when she's with her dad :/""
The caption reads: “I hate the way they sexualize the little girl in the show when she’s with her dad :/” Pic credit: TikTok

Needless to say, fans pushed back the criticism – wondering if the TikTok user was serious. While the user in question remains adamant that their opinion is genuine, it cannot be ruled out that the comment was intended to excite other users who were tired of the “cancel culture mob” coming to their favorite media.

Fortunately, there is no risk of the anime production committee having Spy x Family cancelled. Every series has its detractors and the wave of anti-fans for Spy x Family seems to be small. Given the subjective nature of any piece of media, everyone can have their own interpretation. Does this mean the Spy x Family characters are sexualized?

Does Spy x Family sexualize its characters?

Going by the TikTok user’s premise that “they put pink stuff around her cheekbones when she’s with her dad,” the conclusion seems to be that blushing is inherently sexual, which is why the show sexualizes Anya by finishing her blush around Loid. images. The problem with this claim is that it fails to argue why blushing is inherently sexual in the first place.

A TikTok post containing a conversation between multiple users arguing or sexualizing Spy x Family Anya Forger.
TikTok users are arguing about whether Anya Forger has been sexualized in Spy x Family, the creator of the post is being rationed. Pic credit: TikTok

It is possible that the user in question has only seen characters blush when confessing a love interest or engaging in a sexual act. Does that make their assumption less misguided? Well no. But the most charitable interpretation of their critique is that they misinterpreted blushing — a function people also do for reasons such as, but not limited to, shame and happiness — as a sexual response.

A more charitable reading would be that the user lied about their outrage to get attention. Considering that their TikTok post gained traction and media attention (even spawning articles like this one), it’s safe to say their trick was successful. But who would just go on the internet and lie?

A meme from the TV show Arthur in which the character Buster asks: "Do you really think anyone would do that, just go on the internet and tell lies?"
Buster from the TV show Arthur’s famous quote comes to mind. Photo credit: WGBH Boston

TikToker’s claims may be hard to justify. But Spy x Family isn’t the first anime to risk “cancellation” over claims of sexualization, especially when it comes to underage characters. A common criticism of social media as a whole is the mafia mentality it rewards and how one comment — innocent or not — can cause the court of popular opinion to oppose anything contrary to the status quo.

In the spring 2022 season alone, shows including the highly anticipated The Rising of the Shield Hero, have seen accusations that Ralphtalia, a former slave, was having an inappropriate relationship with lead actor Naofumi. Given the anime’s initial arc — which Naofumi has falsely accused of sexual assault — it’s an ironic complaint, but at least one that has more evidence than a misunderstanding of how blushing works.

Is there a point at which an anime MUST be canceled?

While the controversy – if it can be called that – surrounding Spy x Family can be quickly dismissed, it does raise the question of whether a series can really be problematic and whether that means mobs have to protest a perceived injustice on social media. At what point does fiction cause damage in real life?

The debate over whether art has negative influences on its viewers is one that predates anime. Whether it’s arguments that FPS games increase gun crime or that heavy metal music promotes violent outbursts, there’s no shortage of people playing the blame when it comes to figuring out why bad things happen in the world.

It is easy to intuitively reject many of these claims. Playing a video game or listening to music does not override one’s personal attitude. But further research on the topic reveals that desensitization is a legitimate concern among other negative side effects.

On its own, fiction can do no real harm. However, it can also have other negative effects, such as spreading misinformation leading to negative real-world consequences or desensitizing viewers and glorifying heinous acts.

Does anime spread misinformation?

Anime – like most fictional media – may not be the primary source of information for learning about a topic, but there are certainly shows that offer more insight into worlds that many would never know about otherwise. Bakuman teaches viewers about the struggles of mangaka, just as Golden Kamuy teaches viewers about the Ainu, a Japanese indigenous group. These shows, while dramatized, open the eyes of a layman. Unfortunately, they can give someone a biased perspective on a topic.

Studies on how movies change a person’s perception help show how negative stereotypes can have deleterious effects on the way people treat or emphasize minority groups in people suffering from stigmatized diseases. At the same time, however, media can humanize groups of people who often become voiceless.

Is it an anime’s fault for not educating people in a way that gives a complete picture? In general, no. It is still up to the viewer to separate fiction from reality and educate themselves about topics discussed in a fictional piece of media.

You wouldn’t consider yourself a health professional after binge-watching Cells at Work! nor a scientist after watching Dr. Stone. So to claim that an anime could spread misinformation is unfair as the medium is primarily about entertainment.

That said, could anime be more educational? Secure? It’s great when a piece of fiction can give people more insight into something that is rarely in the spotlight. That does not mean that an entertainment medium has a moral obligation to learn what people with an Internet connection can learn for themselves.

Does anime desensitize viewers to heinous acts?

Those who remember the uproar surrounding Goblin Slayer or the genocide ending of Attack On Titan will remember the criticism that the anime allegedly “glorified” rape and fascim, respectively, according to the critics. It may be difficult for some to understand how a villain’s actions — something that is criticized by the show’s own universe — can be viewed as glorification. But it’s fair to recognize that villains often become fan favorites.

Many will argue that characters like Death Note’s Light and Berserk’s Griffith have done nothing wrong. Usually these are memes. It is possible for a viewer to have a different interpretation than what the author of a work means. In that case, someone might get away from Death Note thinking that a single individual should have the power to kill those deemed unfit for society.

A scene from the anime Berserk where Griffith dreams of a childhood moment.
Who would have thought it was morally wrong to sacrifice your friends to attain divinity? Photo credit: OLM

The real question is whether it is possible to create a piece of media that can – in any way – be taken negatively. If an anime were so one-dimensional that there was no room for thought and discussion, would it even be memorable?

Unfortunately, there are cases where the lines fade. In 2014, the fourth episode of Psycho Pass was taken off Japanese TV after the details of a real-life murder looked eerily similar to a crime in the series. There is no evidence that the anime directly influenced the perpetrator’s choice to brutally murder their classmates, but for many the event was too close to be comforted.

A Facebook post from Funimation explaining that Episode 4 of Psycho Pass Extended Edition will not air on TV.
Although the fourth episode of Psycho Pass Extended Edition was available digitally, it was not originally broadcast on Japanese TV. Pic credit: Funimation

Often people look for something to blame when a tragedy occurs. Mediums like anime – if they really were the source of society’s misery – would be an easy threat to eliminate. The harsher truth is that the human psyche is not as simple as bad-media-in-bad-action-out. Murder, rape and oppressive structures predate animation. And insisting that a show should be banned because it promotes the “wrong” type of thinking is more fascist than any fictional counterpart.

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