Virtually Feminist? The pros, cons, and possibilities of virtual idols

By: Julia Mascetti August 21, 20190 Comments
Idols Kiri and Xi touching palms and extending their other hands to the audience

Like most idol shows, the queue for Tacity 1st AR Live outside DMM VR Theatre in Yokohama is filled with fans clutching glow sticks, ready to perform wotagei (ritualized idol dancing) and cheer for their best girls. We take our seats but not for long, as a guy in a hoodie comes on to the stage, assuring us that it’s okay to stand up and dance. 

3… 2… 1… a massive holographic countdown in blue and pink, a flash of light, and we’re off. 

The stars of the show are Kirin and Xi from Live Animation Heart X Algorhythm, a virtual idol franchise with an anime and YouTube channel who also put on performances, like today. They’re joined by a host of virtual idols, including Mai Princess, a girl group with songs and streams filled with cheesy rice puns, to further their mission to promote the consumption of rice. With the use of Pepper’s ghost technique to add depth to the virtual performers, the show is seamless and the effects are on point. It’s energetic, colourful, techie, and fun. 

The flashing lights were a bit overwhelming (especially as I was hungover that day), but there was something special in the atmosphere—up-and-coming virtual idols coming together to perform in what may be the world’s first permanent hologram projection theatre. It felt like the future was arriving, in baby blues and bubblegum pinks, cute dances, and melodies you can’t get out of your head.

bust shot of Kyoko Date
Kyoko Date

Idol History: Virtual idols through the generations

The performance I went to may have been cutting edge, but virtual idols themselves are nothing new. In 1996, Japanese talent agency Hori Pro commissioned graphics company DK-96 to create Kyoko Date, a cheerful, sporty 17-year-old girl who loved Toy Story and was marketed just like the other idols on Hori Pro’s roster. She was followed by Yuki Terai in 1997 and many others, but the first virtual idol to achieve international stardom was Hatsune Miku in 2007. 

Although unquestionably the world’s most popular virtual idol, Miku is actually a bit of an exception. The blue-green-haired girl we know as Hatsune Miku is the anthropomorphic embodiment of a Vocaloid software developed by Crypton Future. Most idols, virtual and otherwise, operate with a top-down approach to marketing, but the collaborative nature of Miku’s rise to superstardom sets her apart. 

Miku is a crowdsourced idol: her songs aren’t penned by professional writers, but by a dedicated Vocaloid fan community who can also choreograph her stage routines using the software MikuMikuDance. Most virtual idols, including Live Animation Heart X Algorhythm, follow a more traditional model.

Full body shot of Hatsune MIku
Hatsune Miku

Today, advances in technology have changed the landscape for virtual idols. Motion capture was already being used in the days of Kyoko Date, but today’s tech allows for fine details and more fluid movements. Both pre-made content and live performances can be generated at a quality and quantity that could only be dreamed of in 1996. 

Equally significant is the cultural shift toward the digital landscape. The past few years have seen an explosion in the popularity of VTubers, who make videos and stream using avatars. Some VTubers are produced by entertainment agencies or other organisations but many are independent creators, such as London-based Ami Yamato, thought to be the first YouTuber to use a CGI avatar for vlogging.

Like their counterparts in the “normal”—or “corporeal,” let’s call it—idol industry, virtual idols utilize similar techniques to YouTubers. They use vlogging and live streaming to connect with their audience, to the point where the terms “VTuber” and “virtual idol” are sometimes used interchangeably. Kyoko Date’s daughter Ayano Date debuted in 2018, a symbol that we have entered the next generation of virtual idols in more ways than one.

close-up of Ayano Date
Ayano Date

Virtually Perfect: Beauty standards on and off the screen

The dark side of the corporeal idol industry has been widely discussed. The sexualization of underage girls, the “no boyfriend” clauses in contracts, overwork and exploitation that has driven several idols to suicide… these issues are serious. 

The industry does have its brighter aspects, though, such as warmth and creativity within idol fandom, and idol groups that positively represent marginalized people (all the members of Himitsu no Otome, for example, are trans women). As the popularity of virtual idols rises, they raise new intellectual and ethical questions for both producers and consumers of digital entertainment.

It’s well-known that idols are constantly objectified in Japanese media and their bodies used to sell things. Though it must be said that corporeal idols often have “relatable” looks (think “girl next door” rather than “glamorous temptress”), the bombardment of extreme youth, purity, and cuteness as a beauty standard can make many female residents of Japan feel like crap about themselves, myself included. 

Virtual idols take this a step further, given that unrealistic beauty standards are easily achievable for female bodies that are, well, not real. In a 2013 survey of self-described otaku men, 32.6% said they preferred virtual women to real women, some giving disconcerting reasons like, “They don’t age and get old.” Indeed, I have yet to see a virtual idol who has wrinkles, acne, or cellulite.

close-up of iYamato's face
Am iYamato

As with Facetune or virtual reality porn, there is the fear that, without proper representation, technology is distorting beauty standards in a way that makes it impossible for most women to measure up. Writing in 2008 for the Journal of Media and Cultural studies, Daniel Black said:

“The virtual idol promises the possibility of building an idol to order, ensuring that it perfectly reflects consumer tastes and will never change. Key to the virtual idol’s desirability, therefore, is its freedom from the biology which ages the living idol’s body and impedes attempts to refashion it to match consumer tastes.”

In this way, the virtual idol can be manipulated to become an ideal for a heterosexual male consumer, leaving the rest of us nowhere.

Yet, when considering the well-being of female workers in the idol industries, the separation of virtual from physical bodies is not necessarily a bad thing. A voice actress once commented to me: “I can show up with no makeup and [my avatar] will still look stunning.” A motion capture suit can offer voice actresses protection against the restrictions imposed on the bodies of corporeal idols. Actresses can age, have physical imperfections, and be ranked on their vocal talent rather than their bodies.

The identities of the voice actresses behind many popular avatars are kept secret, allowing the women to avoid the harassment that’s a very real danger for corporeal idols. That being said, when voice actresses do reveal their identities, interesting things can happen.

Promo image of Live Animation Heart x Algorhythm

Fantasy Girls: Fiction and reality in virtual idol fandom 

Live Animation Heart x Algorhythm’s performance at DMM VR Theatre in Yokohama was great, but what happened afterwards stayed with me as much as the jokes, songs, and dances. Three average-looking young women, casually dressed, came down to sit on chairs at the front of the stage. These were the voice actresses. 

This is unusual. The voice actresses of most virtual idols remain strictly anonymous, such as the incredibly popular VTuber Kizuna A.I, allowing the fantasy girl to feel as real as possible without the suggestion of human artifice.

I think this acknowledgement of the difference between fantasy and reality is important. The largely male audience at this concert were fans of both the virtual idols for their cuteness and visual appeal and the voice actresses for their talent and hard work. The Q&A I attended felt healthy, light-hearted, and respectful. 

Idols Kiri and Xi touching palms and extending their other hands to the audience

The Live Animation Heart x Algorhythm fanbase seem more than capable of distinguishing which women are real, but Japanese men and fans of anime, manga, and idols in particular are often stereotyped in the West as being socially inept perverts, turning to anime girls because they have no luck with real women. Unfortunately, some Western media propagates an orientalist “Wacky Japan” trope, painting Japan as a weird place full of quirky technology and strange sex stuff. 

Combining tech and “anime girls,” virtual idols make an ideal fan for the flame. The Independent got off to a great start in 1997 when they covered Kyoko Date’s debut, describing her fans as “full-on no-mate net geeks.” Even today, journalists seem to just love bringing up Japan’s low birth rate in articles about virtual girls (sex ≠ procreation, guys, and it’s more than possible to have sex and be an idol fan anyway) or adopt an alarmist “the machines are replacing us “ narrative. 

I have largely found the negative otaku stereotypes of male virtual idol fans to be melodramatic and unfair. Yes, there was that dude who married Hatsune Miku. Fans like this do exist, but plenty of idol otaku are capable of seeing their favorite groups as a fun hobby, a fantasy girl, that they can separate from the way they interact with real women. In other words: no, most Japanese men are not freaks who want to fuck cartoons. Virtual idols and their fandom have their fair share of issues, but the phenomenon has its good points, too.

The members of the group Mai Princess

Problematic Fave: At the nexus of cross-cultural and corporate collabs

Feminist fans of Japanese culture are often drawn towards the idol world for its sense of fun and cultural richness while also being aware of its problems. Fundamentally, most idol agencies are brokers of kawaii capitalism and, even putting their virtuality aside, Live Animation Heart X Algorhythm is no different. 

The project is a collaboration between NTT Docomo in Japan and Migu in China. Kirin and Xi exist to sell phones. Even so, it is heartening to see such positive representation of Chinese language and culture in Japan, as Chinese residents are a group who face widespread discrimination.

The character Xi is written as a native Chinese speaker, and Chinese language is used in both Live Animation Heart X Algorhythm’s performances and in the anime. In the Q&A I saw, the voice actresses showed off their Chinese language ability to the appreciation of the audience. The first two seasons of the anime have also been officially released on both Japanese and Chinese streaming websites.

Basically, it’s super corporate, but this kind of cross-cultural collaboration does good for two countries with a troubled relationship.

Promo image of the Tacitly 1st AR Live concert

Rise of the Machines? Problems, potential, and the future of virtual idols

Much like the wider idol industry, when it comes to virtual idols, the picture is mixed. While the conditions for voice actresses may be better than for corporeal idols, without proper representation, virtual idols can present a specific type of idealized femininity that excludes most women and can engender unhealthy sexual attitudes in certain men.

Personally, I find virtual groups more interesting than real ones, and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. Virtual idols’ content and performances showcase cutting-edge technology and new forms of digital creativity. In the case of Live Animation Heart X Algorhythm, I also like the idea of supporting both the virtual idols and the voice actresses simultaneously.
I think, moving forward, the issue of anonymity will become important when considering how we interact with virtual personae.

Kizuna A.I is getting her first voice acting credit but, since her voice actress has remained anonymous, the credit will go to the virtual idol herself. Though I don’t prescribe to the alarmist “rise of the machines” school of thought, I do think that if the popularity of virtual idols continues to increase, they will carry on raising complex questions about identity, femininity, and creativity.

And if I get a chance to see Live Animation Heart X Algorhythm at a holographic projection theatre again, I won’t miss it. That was a show to remember.

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