A Double Edged Sword: Reconsidering Moe Through a Neurodiverse Lens

By: Marina Garrow December 3, 20210 Comments
Middle school girl Mio huffs grumpily, Two girls sit at attention as her audience from the floor. One cries about a large anime boo boo on her head, evidently delivered by Mio.

Much of my feminist identity has been defined by coming to terms with the disconnect between classic second-wave feminism and the disabled, nuerodivergent experience. After all, feminism focuses on dispelling myths that women are “weak” or “less intelligent”… inherently. That last word is so often understated when describing misogyny, but for me, this distinction is absolutely crucial. It’s crucial because embracing neurodiversity entails acceptance of those who are less able, physically or mentally. It’s crucial because living at the intersection of disability and a feminine identity entails careful handling of a double-edged blade, a complex juggling trick to balance the often conflicting needs for the communities of which I am a part.

Analyzing so-called “moe anime” simultaneously through the lens of feminism and neurodiversity reveals new layers to the conversation, reemphasizing the need to further expand the popular understanding of intersectionality. While these “moeblob” characters may seem to be the opposite of “strong female characters”, reading them through a neurodiverse perspective provides new ways to appreciate them and the shows that spotlight their motivations and interests. This reading is, again, a sharp juggling act: some criticisms against moe raise important points and should not be waved away entirely. However, on the other side of the knife is the potential for valuable, intersectional character analysis that goes beyond the points that a lot of mainstream feminist critiques hit, and reveals something empowering from a different perspective.

A pink haired anime girl grins brightly, holding up a large pink-crystal sword as another character watches in apparent disbelief.
Who needs smarts when you have the power of friendship anyways? (Yes this anime, Endro! is mostly slice-of-life)

Moe and its critiques

Moe anime, or rather, for the purpose of this piece, “iyashikei” stories with cute, soft, stylized character designs (sometimes referred to by the shorthand “moeblob”) have historically been a spicy topic for much of anime fandom. The intentionally relaxing, slice-of-life nature of iyashikei anime such as K-On! initially drew criticism from some vocal viewers because they lacked the kind of plot or stakes fans had come to expect from the shows that were popular at the time. The so-called “cute-girls-doing-cute-things” genre was dubbed vapid, sexist, and objectifying of women, even by those who’d otherwise rarely participate in feminist discourse.

Although much of the fandom’s come around to embracing the healing nature of iyashikei anime, including the dominant cute-girls-doing-cute-things variant (a phrase now often used affectionately, alongside “moe”), the controversy regarding how it portrays women persists.

Yui, a little brown-haired high-school girl from K-On cries a little stream of anime tears down her face, laying face up on the ground, holding up her arms towards the camera as if she wants to be picked up.

To be fair, it does so for some good reasons. Moe, by definition, after all, relies on invoking among its viewers feelings of affection (at its most basic level) or protectiveness (most relevant to cute-girls moe anime). Often this is accomplished by making the characters be any combination of clumsy, ditzy, awkward, shy, gullible, innocent, sometimes even humble and/or submissive. Likewise, the writing quirks required to make hobby-focused anime accessible to unfamiliar viewers can sometimes, when poorly written, feed into the idea that women need very basic knowledge about the world explained to them—an experience all too common even when a woman is an expert in her field. The connotations with classic sexism are remarkably obvious.

Criticism along these lines is reasonable. That the vast majority of women-led anime stories are increasingly harboring moe aesthetics lends itself to concerns of homogenization; the key functional issue of all stereotypes is that they play into the “inherentness” factor of prejudice. Shows returning repeatedly to these tropes of cute, “helpless”, adorable “airhead” girls further stereotype women. While these criticisms of moe have their points, they can fail to distinguish between “It is problematic to stereotype all women as being inherently like this,” and “It is problematic to have women characters behaving like this at all.” It might sound like a small detail, but it’s a distinction that must be made in order to avoid the trap of ableism.

Maple, main character from Bofuri, smiling awkwardly at the camera

The Distinction

Almost no trait in character design is inherently harmful. Stereotypes are a function of, as mentioned before, homogenization, which can in-theory weaponize any trait against a particular group. “Negative” and “positive” stereotypes alike exert pressure on people to either feel a need to conform at a cost to their wellbeing, or be afraid of conforming to the point of, well, accidentally conforming. Fear works that way. The deeper, often overlooked apect to this, however, is in how the “women are stupid” stereotype exposes women to ableism.

Ableism is the broad idea that people less able, physically or mentally, than oneself or “the norm” aren’t worthy of equal treatment as human beings. Although it’s often discussed in the context of someone diagnosed with a specific disability, actually having a specific disability is not required to become a victim to an ableist mindset. If someone is being treated as less worthy of human decency on account of a relative lack of ability or intelligence, that’s ableism. This doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to playfully tease each other, what it means is society’s weirdly pervasive belief in Social Darwinism, even by those who would claim to be progressive, is not okay. It’s a slippery form of prejudice even those with the best intentions often unintentionally perpetuate.

Two girls walk in the rain sharing an umbrella, the relaxed tomboyish one, while eating one herself, holds out a lollipop to the shy younger one with a flower in her hair.

Many who fight sexism understandably distance themselves as much as humanly possible from traits used to leverage ableism against women. This isn’t possible for me. I’ll always wonder why. Why does perceiving a group as less intelligent justify treating them as less than human? Some people’s brains do function differently, and they should be respected just the same as anyone else, with that diversity of experience embraced rather than made a taboo topic. The fact anti-discrimination discourse always, as far as I’ve experienced, hinged on the denial of traits linked to disability and nuerodiversity, always made me feel left out. 

Likewise, it honestly astonished me how much criticism of moe anime comes from the idea that it’s an “unrealistic” portrayal of women, as opposed to a stereotypical one. Moe heroines’ moments of clumsiness and misunderstandings were dismissed as deeply unrelatable and silly,  dubbed to only be believable from five-year-olds. Perhaps we weren’t watching the same anime, and certainly we must have lived different lives. 

Rika from Love, Chuunibyo, and Other Delusions, shyly putting an umbrella between herself and her male love interest

While, again, there is a feminist logic behind these critiques, I often have to note how they rely—intentionally or otherwise—on ideas rooted in ableism.

Stereotypes will always be about stereotypes, not the characteristics themselves. Reclaiming “stereotypical” characteristics is just as important as breaking the norms. This will always be a key part of balancing things at an intersection of identities with even somewhat conflicting needs.

Despite a moe anime’s reinforcement of classic sexist stereotypes, it’s indeed worth considering another side of it’s blade; its role in neurodivergent representation, and not just that of gender.

Yui determinedly practices her guitar, half-eaten jelly toast left next to her on the bench, probably forgotten amidst her focus.

The other side of the guitar: “Moe traits” through a neurodiverse lens

Many criticisms of moe characteristics stem from the idea that these girl characters are created to be appealing to male viewers, and therefore cannot be relatable to any real woman in the audience. However, so-called moe series have yielded several characters that are extremely relatable to the neurodiverse female experience, portrayed with empathy and nuance. Not only that, but these characters are placed in protagonist roles or at least in the main cast. 

Even more importantly, moe heroines are allowed an astonishing level of independence, freedom to make mistakes and live their lives. Rather than belittling its protagonists, moe anime empowers its girls to find fulfillment and happiness in spite of how some viewers may perceive them.

There’s indeed even genuine neurodivergent representation in none other than the princess of moe’s popularization itself, Yui of K-ON! She’s the walking embodiment of ADHD if I ever saw one, and she’s great.

Yui from K-On dressing her beloved guitar in various cute outfits, surrounded by colorful shapes

K-On!‘s first episode highlights, through animation, that she just can’t sit still. She struggles to focus on studying because her “brain wants to focus on everything else,” which is something everyone experiences to a degree but is particularly pronounced for this particular neurodivergent group. Yui’s attention span is shown to be erratic at several other points in the show. 

Then there’s her childhood, which only makes sense if you look at it from a neurodivergent perspective. The first episode establishes that before she joined the light music club she had no particular hobbies other than eating and sleeping. For her age, that’s very odd. Fatigue and lethargy isn’t uncommon for those with ADHD, and while it rarely prevents the creation of hobbies entirely, it may contribute to their lack when combined with Yui’s extreme lack of self-confidence at the beginning of the show.

In fact, what ultimately causes her to join the light music club is a memory of being told she’s good at playing the castanets in preschool. This is the first time we as viewers see her being described as good at something as well, even if it is an instrument as simple as children’s maracas and “clackers”.

Preschooler Yui plays the castanets with enthusiasm, face scrunched up with focus as her whole body appears to be in motion. This contrasts with her classmates going through the motions in a much more relaxed manner.

The persistence of this particular memory is key to understanding her childhood, she held onto it because it’s unique, she rarely felt the feeling of being good at something.

Yui’s plight is played for some whimsical laughs, playing a bit into the human tendency for self-deprecating humor. Sometimes it’s painfully relatable for me as an autistic woman becoming aware that I may also have something like ADHD myself. Yet, to differentiate itself from other anime where disability-linked traits are played exclusively for laughs, Yui’s confidence and self-worth is built up over the course of the series. There’s development, and the series fundamentally respects and loves her as a character; she herself is not merely a joke.

A young woman in casual clothes wearing big headphones and looking thoughtfully at a laptop.

Beyond K-on!, and Beyond Neurodiversity

In addition to K-ON!, there’s other anime with strong neurodiverse interpretations as well. There’s Hitoribocchi no Marumaruseikatsu, an anime all about an extremely anxious schoolgirl making friends. Then there’s School-Live!, which refreshingly approaches delusions and mental illness by allowing its main character to work through her issues via her own agency rather than having someone yell at them about how wrong they are.

Not all of K-ON!’s successors have treated their characters with the level of nuance Yoshida Reiko did when adapting Kakifly’s four panel gag strip, significantly fleshing out the characters herself. As such, not all moe anime are created equal, and it’d be understandable to find some of them to be infantilizing of neurodivergent women. 

However, these exist on a spectrum rather than a binary. There are many moe characters I wouldn’t necessarily diagnose with a specific disability, but still find at least somewhat relatable to my experiences as a neurodivergent woman. Of course, my personal favorite New Game! character was Hifumi Takimoto, who is so “shy,” as characters within the show call her, that she communicates exclusively via email even when the recipient is in the same room (sounds pretty neurodivergent to me). Yet I also found some level of sisterhood in those more moe than neurodivergent on a fundamental level.

A teen girl in a winter coat, scarf, and hat clenches a fist and looks serious as light emanates out from behind her in a halo. Subtitles: "Here we go!"

These moeblob characters can end up being intensely relatable to neurodiverse viewers, adding a new layer of relaxation and fun to these healing series. Sometimes we just want to watch a shy girl have her request to communicate via email with her desk neighbor honored. Sometimes we just want to see a girl with no hobbies finally find something she’s good at. Sometimes we just want to see “clumsy,” “ditzy” girls drive tanks, go camping, eat a dragon, find self-fulfillment, simply live life, or whatever the next cute-girls-do-things anime does. Indeed, sometimes we all want, perhaps need to see the “weaker” character succeed in life, neurodivergent and neurotypicals alike. 

However, the key is always to be concerned with homogenization. Not every woman is the same. Not every disabled person is the same. It’s crucial to keep the language of stereotypes in mind and recognize why they may be harmful, at the same time we recognize that some of these traits are based in real life and aren’t inherently bad. Relying heavily on sweeping and subjective ideas of what’s “realistic” or “relatable” runs the risk of erasing audience members with different life experiences, and even well-intentioned critics might speak over one marginalized group even as they try to uplift another. With the important distinction in mind, moe is an interesting genre with plenty of upsides and downsides, with potential for empowerment and potential for disempowerment alike.

Yui smiling brightly with her guitar, surrounded by floral patterns

Moe is also arguably evolving. Perhaps in addition to seeing more anime departing from the moe aesthetic like Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, we will also continue to see innovation within moe as well: from Hitoribocchi’s genuinely sweet and notably on-the-nose representation of social anxiety, to Bofuri’s refined take on the cute-girls-do-badass-things niche.

Just as no person is the same, no anime should be the same, and all female characters need not be the same, regardless of what that sameness consists of.

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