Spy x Family has been a massive success since its Spring 2022 release. But while fans speak highly of the show’s well-written and likable cast along with comedic elements, others have deemed it problematic.
To say the anime is “cancelled” is really just a figure of speech of Cancel Culture. But is there any merit to the Spy x Family controversy?
A user on TikTok (who will go unnamed in this article so as to not fan the flames) suggested that the anime sexualized Anya Forger, a child character and youngest member of the Forger family. The ‘evidence’ the user provided for this claim was the pink blush on Anya’s cheeks when she interacts with her adoptive father Loid.
Needless to say, fans pushed back on the critique — questioning whether the TikTok user was serious. While the user in question remains adamant that their opinion is genuine, it can’t be ruled out that the comment was meant to get a rise out of other users tired of the “cancel culture mob” coming for their favorite media.
Luckily, 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 appears to be small. Given the subjective nature of any piece of media, anyone can have their own interpretation. Does that mean the Spy x Family characters are sexualized?
Does Spy x Family sexualize its characters?
Going off the TikTok user’s premise that “they put pink stuff around her cheek bones when she’s with her dad”, the inference seems to be that blushing is inherently sexual and therefore the show is sexualizing Anya by depicting her blushing around Loid. The problem with this claim is that it fails to argue why blushing is inherently sexual in the first place.
It’s possible that the user in question has only ever seen characters blushing when confessing to a love interest or when engaging in a sexual act. Does that make their assumption any less misguided? Well… no. But the most charitable interpretation of their critique is that they misinterpreted blushing — a function that humans also do for reasons including, but not limited to, embarrassment and happiness — as a sexual reaction.
A more uncharitable read would be that the user lied about their outrage to garner attention. Given that their TikTok post gained traction and media attention (even spawning articles like this one), it’s safe to say that their ploy was a successful one. But who would just go on the internet and lie?
The TikToker’s claims may be hard to justify. But Spy x Family isn’t the first anime to risk “cancelation” over claims of sexualization — particularly where underaged characters are involved. A common criticism of social media as a whole is the mob mentalities it rewards and how one comment — innocuous or not — may cause the court of popular opinion to rally against anything that goes against the status quo.
In the Spring 2022 season alone, shows including the highly anticipated The Rising of the Shield Hero had accusations that Ralphtalia, a former slave, was in an inappropriate relationship with the protagonist Naofumi. Given the anime’s initial arc — which has Naofumi falsely accused of sexual assault — it is an ironic complaint, but at least one that has more evidence than a misunderstanding of how blushing works.
Is there a point when an anime SHOULD be cancelled?
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 truly be problematic and if that means social media mobs ought to rail against a perceived injustice. At what point does fiction cause real-life harm?
The debate of whether art has negative influences on its viewers is a debate that predates anime. Whether it’s arguments that FPS games increase gun crimes or that heavy metal music promotes violent outbursts, there’s no shortage of people playing the blame game when it comes to figuring out why bad things happen in the world.
It’s easy to dismiss many of these claims intuitively. Playing a video game or listening to music doesn’t overwrite one’s personal disposition. But further research into the topic does reveal that desensitization on top of other negative side effects is a legitimate concern.
On its own, fiction can not cause real-life harm. It can, however, have other negative impacts such as spreading misinformation that leads to negative real-world consequences or desensitizing viewers and glorifying heinous acts.
Does anime spread misinformation?
Anime — like most fictional mediums — may not be the leading source of information to learn about a topic, but there are certainly shows that provide greater insight into worlds many may otherwise never know about. Bakuman teaches viewers about the struggles of mangaka just as Golden Kamuy teaches viewers about the Ainu, a Japanese indigenous group. These shows, while dramatizations, do open up the eyes of a layman. They, unfortunately, can give someone a biased perspective of a topic.
Studies on how movies change a person’s perception help show the ways negative stereotypes can have damaging effects on the way people treat minority groups or emphasize with people suffering from stigmatized diseases. At the same time, however, media can humanize groups of people who often go voiceless.
Is it the fault of an anime for not educating people in a way that provides a fully-rounded picture? In general, no. The onus is still on the viewer to separate fiction from reality and to educate themselves on topics a fictional piece of media discusses.
One wouldn’t consider themselves 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 disingenuous as the medium is understood to be about entertainment first and foremost.
That said, could anime stand to be more educational? Sure? It’s great when a piece of fiction can give people greater insight into something that rarely receives any limelight. That doesn’t mean an entertainment medium has a moral obligation to teach what people with an internet connection can learn themselves.
Does anime desensitize viewers to heinous acts?
Those who recall the uproar centered around 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. To some, it may be hard to understand how the acts of a villain — something criticized by the show’s own universe — can be considered a glorification. But it is fair to recognize that villains do often become fan favorites.
Many will claim that characters such as Death Note’s Light and Berserk’s Griffith did nothing wrong. Mostly, these are memes. It’s possible for a viewer to have a different interpretation than what a work’s author intends. In which case, someone may come away from Death Note thinking that a single individual should hold the power to kill those deemed unfit for society.
The real question is whether or not it’s possible to create a piece of media that can — in no way — be perceived negatively. If an anime were to be so one-dimensional that there was no room for thought and discussion, would it even be memorable?
There are, unfortunately, cases where the lines blur. In 2014, the fourth episode of Psycho Pass was pulled from Japanese TV after the details of a real-life murder felt eerily similar to a crime in the series. There’s no evidence that the anime directly influenced the perpetrator’s choice to brutally murder their classmates, but to many, the event was too close for comfort.
Often, people look for something to blame when a tragedy occurs. Mediums like anime — if they truly were the source of society’s woes — would be an easy threat to eliminate. The harsher truth is that the human psyche isn’t as simple as bad-media-in bad-action-out. Murder, rape, and oppressive structures predate animation. And insisting that a show ought to be banned because it promotes the “wrong” type of thinking is more fascist than any fictional counterpart.