Thursday, August 16, 2018

Flip flappers animators cross the line and ruin what could have been a great show (Anime Review)

Flip Flappers Cocona and Papika
Cocona and Papika

I'd heard about Flip Flappers for a while but continued to resist watching it. When I opened it up on Crunchyroll last week I remembered why. When looking at the art they chose to promote it, it appears highly sexualized. Thankfully, overall, that turned out to be a mis-representation of the show and yet it also is an interesting clue into what this show really is and who it is for.

The entire time I was watching Flip Flappers I had one recurrent question: Is this a children's show or an adult show? It is certainly not unusual in anime to have an adult show with middle-school aged characters, but more often than not I was pleasantly surprised that Flip Flappers actually seemed to be a show for children about children. Mostly, it had the right mix of fun, action, irrepressible characters, and an art style that supported a child-age demographic. However, there were some concerning aberrations from this.

Every so often in the show, a choice by the animators would have me questioning whether Flip Flappers really was an anime for children. Not in the same way that the nearly unrivaled Puella Magi Madoka Magica did, because that was clearly meant as a subversive take on the magical girl genre for older audiences, and it succeeded incredibly at that. No, this was more like: here's a nice happy-go-lucky kids show and don't look too close but here's some middle-school girl crotch for you, or here's a robot making lecherous advances on nearly naked women, or here's a completely unnecessary shower scene, or a phallic looking joystick in a mecha being squeezed by a girl in a close-up shot, or this character's power comes from her upper thigh, or WHAT THE HELL IS SHE WEARING? (Yeah, I'm talking to you, third child that appears out of nowhere in the last few episodes - I mean, it's skimpier than underwear in the front and we get regular butt crack - NOT OKAY).

So the fact that Crunchyroll used promo art that shows clear middle-school girl cleavage/side-boob on a show that is 99% pure tells us that the 1% that isn't pure is exactly who this show is really for. That doesn't mean real kids can't enjoy it, and it doesn't mean honorable adults can't watch it, so long as we're doing it with a critical eye. Let's look quickly at the differences between the art in the show and the promotional art:

Flip Flappers Cocona and Papika
Here's a shot from early in the series. Cute, modest, fun!
Flip Flappers promo art
Here's the promotional art used on Crunchyroll. Notice the side-boob,
they're wet in water, the high slits on the thighs, etc...
Flip Flappers Cocona Papika and Yayaka
Here's a shot from the show.
flip flappers box set art
And here's the box set, also with art that looks nothing like the
series and is clearly meant to further sexualize the characters.

 What message does it send when we let a robot (who we can assume is male) have several instances of making google-eyed faces at scantily clad women? Instead of those costumes being female empowerment choices made by individual women based on how they want to present themselves, it becomes clear that the costume choices were made by animators for the purpose of titillation. There can be no excusing or hand-wringing, or plausible deniability on the grounds that there is nothing objectively wrong about skin and naked bodies other than what puritanical society has created because now you have put in a robot who leers at them. We now understand, through his surrogacy, that we should leer too. We have now just instructed every male (young or old) who watches this show that women can be objectified and we've instructed every female (young or old) who watches this show that times still haven't changed and they still must be afraid for their bodies around men who cannot be asked to control their most animal instincts. Stupid writers/animators.

However, that was 1% of the show. What about the other 99%? Well, it was okay. Not as great as the potential plot setup would suggest, but probably worth watching. Cocona is a middle-school student who meets the manic-pixie-dream-girl (yes, it's still a thing) Papika and enters a strange parallel universe called Pure Illusion with her to find fragments of something that will apparently grant them wishes. Cocona intermittently questions why she's doing this, given that they really can get hurt. But I wondered why Cocona doesn't question the strange and dark Mr. Salt who is their boss and why she would work for his organization, Flip Flap, without proof that they're the "good guys?" Especially when it turns out her best friend Yayaka (maybe the best character in the series) is working for another faction. How does she know Yayaka isn't with the good guys and Papika is with the bad guys? The only real conclusion I can draw is that Cocona is somehow infatuated with Papika in a way she has yet to admit to herself.

That's actually the context in which I first heard about Flip Flappers, as a yuri-baiting experience. Without spoiling anything too much, there are certainly plenty of moments when Papika seems to express genuine love, leaning slightly towards the romantic (if only vaguely) for Cocona. Cocona barely seems to want to be real friends, until she gets jealous, that is. However, other than occasionally telling each other they love each other and a little hand holding, there is no yuri. Sadly, very little of their connection with each other gets explored. We are given historical information by the end that cements their connection, but not a lot of actual day-to-day interactions that would suggest a growing friendship or even an eventual romantic one. This writing too suggests more of a children's show than a developed adult show.

I did love the hand-drawn aesthetic of the art. It's not all full of CGI, even in the action scenes. I like that it looks like a cartoon. I have to admit too that Papika is completely winning as a character, you just can't help but want to follow her. I also like that Cocona's grandmother is in a wheelchair, we see so few people with disabilities in any show, let alone in anime. I'm not a huge magical girl fan, but at least the monster-of-the-week thing here was more of "universe-of-the-week" and so the adventures were a bit more varied. I do think the transformation scenes were also a bit too risqué if this is a children's cartoon (as in, they should already have underwear on during the transformation - but no, alas, here they are naked and then the underwear appears in a full-screen butt shot, sigh).

So what do we really have in Flip Flappers? Some good magical girl adventures, a couple good characters, interesting art, a family plot that I won't give away that drives the end of the story and has some interesting nuggets, but overall a show that doesn't really explore any significant emotional connections or growth. Relationships are very superficially established and yet the final arc hinges on believing these relationships are that intense. It wasn't a bad show, it might even have been a good show, but it wasn't a great show, and yet it COULD have been. It was sooooo close.

If I were rating this as a kid's show, I'd give it a 7/10 (it would be higher if not for the sexualization). But rating it as an adult show, I think I need to give it a 5.5/10 for its lack of depth and for the subtle, not-so-subtle, adult sexualizing of middle-schoolers that crops up at points. I mean, imagine if stuff like that cropped up in Fineas and Ferb? Never would happen, so why is this okay in anime? It's not. We don't have to excuse it and I won't even call it culturally-bound because cultures are allowed to change and it's time to stop sexualizing youth in anime.

Where we can hopefully excuse an adult viewer as a critical viewer who can separate out any value a show might have from its problematic points. But we cannot assume that children are critical consumers of media and imagery. Therefore, this exposure to sexualization and the male gaze places these developmentally fragile children in harm's way (both girls and boys who are each learning different things about how the world works from these exposures).

Skin and nudity aren't the problem. There is nothing objectively wrong or sexual about the human body. It is the overt use of props, clothes, imagery, and actions that directly call for sexual arousal or that hint at the legacies of pervasive male dominance and loss of sexual and bodily agency by women that must be seriously rethought. I'd love to see an edit of Flip Flappers where those issues are removed. They are so few overall in the show, but broke the spell for me each time and truly ruined my experience with this show.

For a great, and slightly different take on this series, that still references some of the same critical problems, check out this review on www.anime-evo.net: http://www.anime-evo.net/2016/12/30/flip-flappers-13-series-finale-review/

Here's a fascinating look at Flip Flappers from an animator's view of how it fails to provide emotional expression in the facial animation: https://wavemotioncannon.com/2016/12/20/how-flip-flappers-gets-expressions-wrong/


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5 comments:

  1. Your division to "children shows" and "adult shows" is arbitrary, abrupt and lacks nuance and understanding of spectrum.

    do you think people are naive little children who are too young and innocent to think or process anything else than Paddington until hey turn 18, from which point onward they're adults and anything goes?

    That's the feeling I get when I read your review.

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    1. Hi, thank you for reading and taking the time to reply. I agree with you whole heartedly that children are complex, thoughtful, and way more aware of the world than adults typically acknowledge. I'm also not trying to shelter anyone.

      I also know that developmentally, when children are repeatedly exposed to violent, sexualized, or other "mature" content at a young age AND don't have a supportive adult to help them process through it, that it can change the way children view themselves in the world, and not for the better (ie it may normalize inappropriate behavior, it may normalize the male gaze, it may normalize violence as a solution to problems, etc...).

      I spend a fair amount of time working with childhood victims of trauma and teaching schools how to be trauma informed. What we know is that a bad event doesn't create trauma if there is an adult there to help them process it. People can and do get over things, but when children routinely are exposed to problematic messages without that support to process through them, then it can be not so great.

      With that as a backdrop, I think that's what I meant by concerned that this show (a show that features middle school characters, and has some wonderful qualities that I would want for entertainment for even my own child) also made some choices, which if they go unquestioned and unsupported by a parent/adult in the household would not be what I would want my child thinking was okay in the world. Here's a quote from the above review about things that concerned me:

      ..."but here's some middle-school girl crotch for you, or here's a robot making lecherous advances on nearly naked women, or here's a completely unnecessary shower scene, or a phallic looking joystick in a mecha being squeezed by a girl in a close-up shot, or this character's power comes from her upper thigh, or WHAT THE HELL IS SHE WEARING? (Yeah, I'm talking to you, third child that appears out of nowhere in the last few episodes - I mean, it's skimpier than underwear in the front and we get regular butt crack - NOT OKAY)...Crunchyroll used promo art that shows clear middle-school girl cleavage/side-boob..."

      These examples: camera shot of a middle-school girls crotch, squeezing an obvious penis, hitting on women without consent, super skimpy clothing that sexualizes a young girl, etc... are all examples of overt sexualization of minors. If that was an artistic choice, that's their decision to make, but I still get to be critical of it.

      I don't think any of those choices helped the story for either adult or child viewers (a series which I actually really liked remember), and I would want any parent to know about them in the show so that they could watch WITH their child and process through what those types of things mean and how they aren't okay in the real world. We've done that for 16 years with our own child and she is now able to separate what's on-screen from what is okay in the real world, and thus protect herself, advocate for consent, and basically respect other people while insisting on respect for herself.

      And maybe this is an adult show and not meant for kids? As you say, my division of adult and children's shows might be arbitrary. Is the new She-Ra and the Princesses of Power for adults or children? Is My Little Pony Friendship is Magic for adults or children? And I, as an adult, LOVE Arthur on PBS Kids. (I also love those other shows I just mentioned and think they are okay for adults and children).

      (part 1, to be continued...)

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    2. Part 2:
      What's important is knowing whether children are watching or not. The creators can do anything they like, it's their show. But if there is a likelihood that children are watching they have a few choices: 1) don't put in overt sexualization,or glorified violence, or racist tropes, or other problematic stuff; 2) Put that stuff in and directly critique it within the context of the show - ie natural teaching as dialogue and outcomes within the show; or 3) put it in, don't critique it within the show and I'm going to critique it myself and make sure that I'm aware of what my own child is watching and help her process through it (and I hope other parents do too). This blog is a place where I raise awareness for things that perpetuate harm, stereotypes, or oppression but I also try to bring awareness to works of art that elevate us beyond the problems of our current society (when I find them).

      So whether this show was "intended" for children or not, what I know is that children are likely to watch it. It isn't "Breaking Bad" or "Shameless" or other U.S. shows that are clearly meant for adult audiences (and shame on parents who let their 10 year olds watch those - yup, I do feel that those shows, even with processing, would be harmful for a 10 year old). Those shows might be okay for a teen audience, but I would want parents to process that with teens as teens brains are still very much developing (especially the reasoning and other centers of the prefrontal cortex which helps with decision making). I remember my own father watching an action movie with me, and after he talked to be about the way women were treated in one scene to make sure I understood that it wasn't okay to treat women like that. Lessons like that stick with kids and make kids into better adults.

      As for anime, the lines tend to get blurred because multiple ages may enjoy a show, the mere fact of it being animated allows us to "excuse" more than we would in live action, and that so many anime are "for" adults but feature children (and if you've read some of my other reviews, you know I rail against teachers dating students in manga as an example of one trope that needs to die) - so all those taken together, I am providing a critique, from my point of view, and looking at things through an intersectional lens - and middle school crotch shots, penis fondling children, and revealing clothing smacks of male voyeurism and sexualization of minors and I thought it was unnecessary for any valid artistic or literary purpose in this show. The inclusion of that type of imagery and those situations could normalize that for children and we don't want that normalized. Let children be children and have deep, complex inner worlds, let them explore sexuality naturally, let them develop intimate relationships with same age peers, that all good, fine. But don't show their underwear suggestively on TV. Don't have 12 year olds fondling phalic joysticks, don't show that it's okay to lust after and chase naked women, and don't promote the show as if its all skimpy costumes (especially since it's not and 99% of the show is awesome). So if that concern is arbitrary and lacks nuance, I'm cool with that!

      (to be continued...)

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    3. Part 3
      I don't know if all this helps explain why I was concerned with those types of moments in a show that I otherwise liked? Because I did like it, and I would be okay with kids watching it. I have no idea if its a kids show or not, but I sure as hell would talk through those things with my own child.

      I also am talking through those things with any adults who stumble onto my blog because we need to stop using these types of situations and images without any critique in our media and entertainment. As shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (the reboot) demonstrate, we can have diverse (racial, ethnic, LGBTQ, body type, etc...) casts, we can celebrate bodies of all types, we don't have to cloth our women in thong bikini's every chance we get, we don't have to have a single crotch shot...etc...etc... to be entertaining, thoughtful, or meaningful. I dare anyone to explain why the particular nuances that I found concerning in Flip Flappers were in any way helpful or useful to the plot or artistic value of this show regardless of the age of the audience. But also remember, I liked 99% of the show, and said so in my review! :) One can like something and also be critical of parts of it. And just because I'm critical of something doesn't mean you can't like it, and vice versa. We are allowed to like different things. But I hope I added context to my argument that might make you rethink some of the imagery in this show regardless of what age it is for.

      (the end)

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    4. ps. also your comment was mostly an ad hominem attack on me and my writing ability without adding any actual content to the discussion about the show or the themes of my review. Just saying! >_<

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