If I were asked to describe Love Live in one word, it would be “optimistic.”
Not “catchy,” though the songs in Love Live are very catchy. Not “silly,” though the shenanigans the characters get into are funny, or “dramatic” though the conflicts they’re written into feel theatrical. That’s because my most striking memory of the show is at its very start, when Honoka and her friends truly believe they can make a difference.
The Love Live girls love their school, which they learn is going to close. School attendance isn’t what it used to be due to Japan’s low birthrate. Boards of Education throughout Japan have decided to shutter the least attended schools so they can merge ever-diminishing student bodies. This is a very real issue, as Japan’s shrinking and aging population is a concern that has plagued the nation for decades. It’s a challenge that still requires a solution.
Love Live frames the immediate conflict of a school shutting down as a symptom of a larger issue within Japanese society. However, rather than wallow in the hopelessness of such a backdrop, the girls of Love Live resolve to save their school by becoming school idols. They hope to compete in and win at “Love Live,” a contest between school idol troupes all over the country. They hope that the fame they acquire from their efforts and victory will attract more people to enroll at their school, and that the enrollment uptick will be enough for their school’s Board of Education to reverse their decision to close it.
They embody hope, and Love Live strives to make this hope relatable to audiences everywhere by embedding it in the girls’ characters. Nico’s facade as vainglorious idol trash is belied by the responsible role model idol that she wants to project to her younger siblings. Nozomi’s guise as a shadowy behind-the-scenes people-fixer brings all the characters together as friends and idols. Honoka is indefatigable to the point of recklessness, and when she finally does collapse due to exhaustion and depression, it’s the very friends she inspired who act as the idols who pick her up.
The dark side of idol culture
“Idols as hope” is an inspiring setup. That is, until it’s undercut by the notion of “idols as product.” Nico undoes her hair and looks suggestively at the camera. Nozomi gropes her classmates as a regular gag, and in one episode, tomboy Rin is reluctantly bedecked in a wedding gown and paraded on stage to a musical number. What do these things have to do with inspiring hope? Who were these scenes made for? The answer, unfortunately, is the straight male audience the series is targeting.
The Japanese female idol industry’s target consumer audience is straight men. I’m not going to argue that women can’t enjoy female idols themselves, nor will I assert that men can’t enjoy female idols for entirely innocent reasons. However, the commercial structure that underlies the idol industry is inherently exploitative of the female image and sex.
The idol industry actively shapes and exploits the image and sexuality of women for the purposes of profit, and it does so according to the peculiar demands of its male consumer audience. An infamous set of rules for most female industry idols is that (1) they need to be young, (2) they have to be virgins, (3) they must refrain from engaging in any active romantic relationships.
The underlying reasons for these rules is that these girls need to be pure like shrine maidens and at the same time, paradoxically, available to everyone. Being an idol is less a calling than a job, though, and the suggestion that a woman can’t separate her public life from her private one by having a partner seems a bit imperious.
Nevertheless, these rules are imposed on idols from two directions—by both talent agencies and male fans—and they must be obeyed if an idol wants any chance of moving ahead in her career. The backlash to the perception of an idol losing her supposed purity can be extreme to Western eyes. When an underage idol was discovered to have a boyfriend, a talent agency successfully sued her family for breaking her contract. An AKB48 idol felt compelled to shave her head and beg for contrition after news of her visiting her boyfriend incognito made the public rounds.
And then there’s the infamous case of Aya Hirano, the once-popular voice actress of Haruhi Suzumiya who, after achieving fame for her acting and musical roles in that franchise, attempted to break into the musical idol scene. She gave a public talk about her vibrant love life during an interview and was subsequently castigated by male fans who felt betrayed.
Given the abstract demand of “being available for everyone” though, why would male idol fans react to their favorite idols having partners so vehemently and personally? The key seems to be in that possessive “their.” These fans imagine themselves as possessing particular idols, understanding idols as both stars whose success they are stakeholders to and as feminine objects who belong to them.
They believe they earn this ownership through their devotion and “sacrifice” to those idols, in the form of the performances they patronize and the merchandise they buy. It doesn’t make a whole lot of practical sense for someone to purchase for themselves the same volume of idol music several times over, but some fans will do it to support their favorite idols. There’s definitely a sexualized aspect to this possession-fantasy as well, as idols will dress up in attractive, skimpy, and otherwise fetishized attire for photoshoots and videos.
In this sense, “being available for everyone” encompasses what male fans see as a reciprocal “sacrifice” from female idols. In return for their loyalty, male fans “earn” the privilege to imagine being with them, a privilege that’s possible through the convenience of plausible deniability. That illusion is shattered when female idols hook up with real-life partners, and the consequent feelings are ones of personal betrayal.
These feelings happen because male fans fail to take into account who these idols are as real people, and that they may not be who they project on stage and in front of a camera. They’re infatuated by the image they have of “their” idols, but that image is a fantasy created by male fans and talent agencies. Ultimately, idols are fictional, performative constructs. Their idol persona doesn’t define who they are as individuals, at least not completely. The idol industry’s refusal to allow for this separation between public and private leads to a destructive pattern. Female artists can never stop performing as who they are not, lest their male fanbase turn on them for who they are.
Love Live and the “perfect” idol
There’s an advantage, then, to male idol fans making 2D girls their idols. Real-life idols are human beings who might “break character.” In contrast, the anime girl can be designed to always act and never break out of their idol role.
The anime girl can be designed to possess an exaggerated personality and quirks, to act out whatever lewd or crude behavior one wants them to act out, to pose in whatever revealing or suggestive clothing one wishes, and to express either no interest in boyfriends or erase the threat of boyfriends entirely… all without being susceptible to forgetting or tiring of their roles like real-life idols might. In that sense, 2D girls are the “perfect” idols.
That 2D advantage applies to idol anime like Love Live. All the girls are written with personalities that make them very distinct from each other, to the point of exaggerations that suggest their artifice. Honoka is the energetic and passionate one who likes eating plain bread. Maki is the cool, stylish, rich, musically-gifted, and surprisingly innocent beauty. Rin is a sporty tomboy who wishes she was more feminine and mews like a cat all the time.
Some of the girls perform lewd or crude behavior designed to appeal to the sensibilities of men. Nico, at one point, looks softly toward the camera, undressing her hair bands and bow and motioning seductively toward it for attention. Nozomi constantly teases and harasses her underclasswomen by groping their chests and commenting on their breast sizes.
And then there is the suggestive and fetishized wear the girls pose and strut in. In addition to their myriad idol uniforms, there’s cheerleader uniforms, swimsuits, tuxedos, and, in the case of Rin, a wedding gown. In the episode where she finds herself wearing it, she admits at the beginning that she’s insecure about her lack of femininity. Setting aside her feminine-coded quirk of mewing cutely like a cat, the way the show resolves her conflict is to put her in a dress that’s associated with her being married. As opposed to any other gender-appropriate attire, femininity for her is implicitly established as being someone’s wife.
Even more problematically, every subsequent episode features Rin wearing the same fashion and behaving the way that she always had before. She didn’t become any more outwardly feminine, despite being quite apparently feminine already. She was always and continued to be athletic and cute.
It’s as though part of the episode’s purpose was to justify putting this character in a wedding gown so it could excite and reassure male idol fans. Normally, Rin is tomboyish enough for those fans who get excited by petite sportiness in their girls. Reassuringly, she’s also feminine enough that you can imagine yourself next to her in a wedding gown and call her wife city.
Finally, in Love Live, there’s the strange absence of male characters in the show, with two exceptions: Honoka’s dad, who cameos very infrequently and has no speaking roles, and Nico’s little brother, who’s young enough as a toddler to appear gender-neutral.
From one innocent interpretation, the near-absence of boys and men in the show is meant to highlight the girls’ emotions and activities without any male distractions. From a more cynical perspective, it’s a means to remove any potential boyfriend who could claim the girls for themselves. An infrequently illustrated father and a small child are hardly threatening presences to male idol fans. The lack of canon male characters leads to the plausible deniability that male fans require to preserve the illusion of imagining the idols for themselves.
If you remember me gushing about Love Live’s optimism earlier, you can see that I was and continue to be a fan of the franchise. There’s nothing wrong with liking Love Live for its catchy music, funny shenanigans, and theatrical beats. There’s nothing bad about seeing Love Live as an empowering and hopeful narrative. From Macross to AKB0048 to Love Live, idol narratives can be super inspiring.
However, fans of any franchise should be self-aware of the problematic foundations that they’re built on. The idol industry is riddled with ethical issues that revolve around the male-gazey exploitation of young female bodies for profit. Some of Love Live’s comedic gags, character quirks, and episodic subplots are unfortunately informed by this gaze. In being more critical of the media we consume, we can take steps to push the Japanese female idol industry to treat idols (and women in general) like actual people instead of full-time fantasies.