Inspired by currently airing Girlish Number, some of the team decided to take a feminist look at “trash characters” like Chitose. What makes a trash character? What’s the connection between trash characters and other anime archetypes, like moe or chuunibyou? How are male and female trash characters portrayed differently? Read our takes below then get involved with your thoughts in the comments!
Dee: I see a trash character as someone the audience would hate in real life but like in fiction because they get to embody and play out some of our own pettier desires like laziness, selfishness, or ignoring social mores in favor of acting on our gut reactions.
Past that, I’d say there’s a lot of wiggle room in how that “trash” character behaves. The “charming asshole” or “well-meaning but oblivious buffoon” archetypes fit the bill, but also, because Japan has historically stressed a divide between public behavior (tatemae) and honest opinion (honne), you also get these great “two-faced” trash characters who seem totally put-together in public but are then just total slobs or jerks in private.
I think there’s a cultural expectation (both in Japan and the U.S.) that women be kind, cooperative caretakers all the time, which often leads us to avoid or diffuse conflict instead of facing it head-on. Being a kind, cooperative caretaker is admirable regardless of gender, but no one is perfect—we all have moments when we want to let loose, or where that polite thing we say doesn’t match that annoyed thing we’re thinking.
Frog-kun: In my eyes, “trash character” is a cheeky way to refer to characters who wouldn’t be considered likable in real life, but are rather endearing in fiction. They’re not quite villains, but they’re far from heroic either. One of the most iconic examples of this character type (at least when it comes to female characters) would be Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. She’s cruel, vain, and self-centered, but all the more compelling for it. I’m also a big fan of Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.
What’s particularly interesting about these characters from a feminist perspective is that they defy stereotypes of women as “the fairer sex.” These characters are blatantly flawed, but they also display a great deal of agency and an ability to think for themselves. You can’t help but admire them a little, even when their actions are terrible. The main reason why i admire such characters (even when they’re trash) is because they’re ambitious.
Lauren Orsini: A trash character is a character I’m embarrassed to tell people is one of my favorites. Usually I share some traits with this character that I am not exactly proud of.
Why do we like to draw these characters in a trash can (or with their name inscribed on a trash can)? It’s because they’re cute, but their personalities are absolutely not. In anime, to be attractive a girl not only has to LOOK cute, but act cute, and represent what cuteness is all the time. Trash girls break this mold by being too bossy or rude or otherwise flawed, which makes them human! So what makes them trash is also what makes us love them.
Vrai Kaiser: “Trash” is a nebulous sort of concept, but it generally seems (at least to the characters I love) to encompass characters who are at least semi-antagonistic (their attempts to make life better for themselves makes things worse for other people in the narrative), but with an inability to see the larger picture. They’re simultaneously victims or some degree of pathetic in addition to being harmful. The “trash” element comes from knowing they’re harmful but also sympathizing.
Amelia Cook: Looking at all the definitions above, is there anything that any of you disagrees with or has questions about?
VK: Is embarrassment crucial to loving a trash character? Or the feeling that one “should” be embarrassed for liking them?
Caitlin Moore: I agree—I don’t think embarrassment is necessarily part of it.
Peter Fobian: Yeah, in fact I think some characters fit the type specifically because they just reject social niceties and put the undesirable aspects of their personality on full display.
VK: I would say maybe it’s a willingness to acknowledge the character as deeply flawed, rather than going the THEY DID NOTHING WRONG route (which sometimes requires a lot of contorting).
PF: Come to think of it, I believe all the characters who I consider to be trash types have some level of self-awareness about themselves, even if they alternate between honesty and self-denial like Tomoko (from WataMote).
D: I think I get what Lauren means about embarrassment, though—sometimes other viewers conflate “I like this character” with “I approve of everything this character does,” so you get weird backlash for enjoying watching a trash character.
CM: Peter’s definition is closest to mine. I think of trash characters as ones who ignore or reject the social harmony that’s important to Japanese culture. Girls who aren’t gentle or kind, not even deep down, tend to be regarded as “trash.”
FK: Is this really about Japanese culture, though? All my favourite “trash” characters are not even from Japanese media.
CM: That’s how I’ve been thinking of it in this specific context.
VK: Maybe that’s why my definition is so broad—the traits might differ in how the narrative judges them depending on the originating culture, but it still comes down (to an extent) to narrative function.
AC: Do you think there’s a connection between trash characters conforming to gender expectations specifically? Is it possible for a female character to be a trash character without rejecting expectations of femininity?
CM: I think it has a lot to do with gender expectations.
VK: I mean, there’s a can’t-win scenario there in some cases. What women “are like” versus what the narrative thinks an idealized woman “should be” like (I hate myself already for all these scare quotes). The popular girl archetype, if she’s given any depth at all, falls into that.
CM: I’ve been reading Anime Explosion, and his chapter on shoujo manga is about the expectation of being “yasashii.” Basically, a girl can do pretty much anything as long as she has a kind and gentle heart at the root of it. Without that kind and gentle heart, she’s trash.
D: I think gender expectations are a major part of it for all genders. Male “trash” characters also often tend to be considered as such because they’re not industrious or aggressive, or they play dirty to get results, etc.
VK: It would certainly fit in with depictions of queer characters as lustful and duplicitous types (the constant attempts to “seduce” straight characters or feel them up without permission etc etc because they’re not, in some way, apparently honest).
PF: Most of the characters I can think of presented in this way are female, so I believe that’s a component. A lot of these characters veer away from archetypal femininity in extremes.
D: You do see that in shoujo a lot. But then there are some creators who push back against that. I think in some ways trash characters are encouraging us to acknowledge that those gendered ideals are absurd. The fact that we like these trash characters is because they speak to our own differences or outright flaws.
FK: My favourite examples of this type of character tend to be ambitious women. That may have something to do with it!
PF: I think the character that opened my eyes to this archetype was Umaru. I really enjoyed Yukino from Kare Kano but not as many people watched that among my social groups. I was surprised that just about everyone I knew watched Umaru and said “that’s me.”
CM: One of the reasons I dropped Magical Girl Raising Project when I did was Ruler was shown as an ambitious woman in the workplace with no regard for how a recent female hire should act, in a negative light. Seo from Nozaki-kun is the one I watch and go “that’s me.” Total lack of awareness, yep.
D: YES, she’s magnificent. Because that “lovable, oblivious boor” character type *always* goes to male characters, especially in shojo.
CM: And I think Seo really taps into the gendered expectations as part of the definition of trash.
LO: The “that’s me” part is what embarrasses me about trash characters. By admitting I sympathize with them, I’m admitting just how much I relate to this behavior.
VK: Which gets more uncomfortable when the severity of the crimes goes up.
D: There’s definitely a line between “trash” and “villain.”
FK: That reminds me of Gone Girl, how a lot of people said they related to that “cool girl” monologue, even though the character is, well, not the most pleasant sort.
LO: Man was I embarrassed when I read more than the first 50 pages of that book, since I had just told my mom how much I empathized with Amy
PF: That’s probably the most necessary part of my definition, the identification with those undesirable traits. We can see them being selfish and self-indulgent and it’s sort of validating to see other people with the same perceived shortcomings.
VK: It’s the difference between a Nanami and Touga Kiryuu [from Utena]. I just can’t relate to the latter as trash because of his power relative to how much he messes up the lives he meddles in (even if he’s also a victim of the narrative).
D: Power is a good measuring stick, hadn’t thought of that before
VK: Even someone like Lieutenant Oscar [from The Woman Called Fujiko Mine], whom I adore and does some horrible misogynistic shit, is ultimately the victim of the power structure he’s trapped in and suffers as a pawn.
PF: I think the level of control in relation to their power as well. Some characters in those positions I’m alright with because it seems like they can’t control themselves when they’re meddling or doing whatever they need to do to indulge in their vice.
CM: Malice without power is trash. Power and malice make villainy.
D: Although I consider Lina Inverse (from Slayers) a trash character and she’s ridiculously powerful, so maybe it’s a combination of qualities. Power + Vices – Benefits To Others = Trash Level (heh, AniMaths!)
PF: I wonder if we can actually condense it down to an equation.
D: I think most trash characters don’t have a lot of outright malice behind their actions. It comes more from obliviousness or insecurity. Like they don’t even realize they’re hurting other people a lot of the time.
LO: They’re self-absorbed. It’s not that they think badly of others, it’s that they don’t always think of others.
PF: Or hurting the other person is just a consequence of getting what they need. They don’t want to hurt someone else, but getting what they need is supreme.
Trash, Chuunibyou, and Moe
VK: I find it hard to find trash characters in something like a KyoAni [Kyoto Animation] show, honestly. Something about how obviously calculated the characters are (you would probably say Asuka or Ren, in theory, but I just CAN’T).
PF: What about Chuunibyou? That was KyoAni.
FK: Nibutani? She fits, in my opinion.
CM: Are chuunibyou characters universally trash?
PF: I would say there is a LOT of crossover. The thrust behind chuunibyou seems to be an adolescent desire to be the center of attention.
FK: Nibutani’s the one who was previously a chuunibyou but doesn’t want to admit it, and is rather two-faced in general.
AC: How about other anime and manga archetypes? How is the appeal of trash characters related to the appeal of moe characters, for example?
FK: Well, Girlish Number has girls who look pretty moe but have terrible personalities.
VK: There’s a certain amount of protectiveness involved, I think. A sentiment of “this character is terrible but they’re trying their best/if circumstances were different they’d be a better person.”
CM: It’s a combination of relatability and the desire to protect.
FK: I think giving a character that look can actually enhance their “trash” qualities, since part of what makes them so endearing is how they twist genre/societal expectations
VK: I don’t think it’s packaged and sold that way, but it’s a similar emotion
LO: The first trash character I thought of when Amelia brought this up was from a moe show—Nico from Love Live!.
PF: Maybe moe deadens the impact of their undesirable traits. If you see a dirty smelly character who is a hikikomori you might feel disgust while a moe equivalent may cause the audience to give them a chance and humanize them.
LO: Like in Zetsubou Sensei, perhaps?
VK: Maybe it ties into wanting to rail against the SYSTEM on behalf of a trash character, because they run counter to convention. Unique from “I want to protect and nurture this individual who is deficient in their ability to function alone” a la moe (though I think that can factor into certain trash characters)
CM: Could WataMote be considered moe? I haven’t actually watched it.
D: In the “I want to help and protect this person” sense, yes, I’d consider it moe. The protagonist is fighting with severe social anxiety and depression and her family just ignores it. WataMote‘s good but it’s a tough watch.
PF: Tomoko from WataMote is… I’m not sure if you could call her moe. She has a lot of moe features but also the dark bags and messy hair. The anime was sort of hard to watch for me. It’s hilarious but I also felt really bad for her. In that way I think I’d definitely connected with the character.
D: I wouldn’t really consider her a trash character though. Her problems are too serious. I think there has to be a certain levity to trash characters – an ability to laugh at them while also rooting for them.
LO: Watching WataMote made me feel “same” and other times “TOO SAME.”
PF: I would say she is trash but also has real issues. Tomoko is immensely self-indulgent but also has very real, crippling social anxiety.
Male Trash Characters
AC: How about trash characteristics and moe as applied to male characters? Same connection, or do those things intersect differently when the characters are male?
VK: It’s the same want to protect and divergence from societal expectation, but the traits involved are different
CM: I’d say Rin in the first season of Free! qualifies as trash.
VK: Is he? I mean the narrative is so heavily weighted in saying that things will turn out fine for him and he’ll be accepted as part of the protagonist group
LO: For Rin, I instantly agreed because he’s a show-off and self-absorbed, but also a total loser who needs to make sure his friends notice how cool he is.
CM: A lot of what makes him qualify as trash rather than a villain is how we get to see how absolutely miserable he is.
PF: I have more trouble even thinking of male characters since I think they have a more leeway when it comes to acceptable behavior and vice. Like in the west, I’m not even sure. Would House or Dr. Strange be considered Trash? My go to anime example is Tatsuhiro from Welcome to the NHK.
VK: Lestat de Lioncourt [from Anne Rice’s novels] is my go-to western trash character. A tornado of TERRIBLE DECISIONS who’s jerked around and rendered powerless and completely incapable of meaningful introspection. I just mark Rin out because I feel like trash characters aren’t necessarily actively redeemed in story, whereas the POINT of Free! is to bring him back into the fold
PF: For me, I think the best trash characters don’t necessarily correct themselves so much as find a balance. If they’re “fixed” that means that there was something fundamentally wrong with them, the implication being that if the audience identifies with those traits then there is also something wrong with them.
CM: I tend to find male characters trash in a less affectionate way, and in ways where I may disagree with the narrative
PF: Do you think that could be gendered or a matter of portrayal?
CM: It’s definitely gendered.
VK: The pathetic component is even more important for male trash characters, I think, since they have an additional level of cultural privilege that needs to be swept away.
CM: Have any of you read the Kare Kano manga? Arima and Yukino are both trash but Arima is in a much worse way.
FK: Arima is so… angsty.
CM: He’s so angsty and he takes it out on Yukino.
AC: Do you think the different social expectations of men compared to women make it harder to identify a male character as trash than a trash female character? Would the definition of a trash character be different for male characters?
VK: I mean, my two favorite trash male characters are Saionji (Utena) and Oscar (Fujiko Mine). And the awful things they do are constantly undercut by how much they’re kicked around and often TRYING to be good only for that option to be yanked away from them. (Saionji later wants to quit the dueling game that sees Anthy as an object but isn’t allowed, Oscar is constantly told his queerness is unnatural and he’ll never compete.)
LO: The male characters I think of as trash (and identify with) have many effeminate qualities, and I wonder if that has something to do with this. Such as: excessive interest in own appearance, for example.
PF: Hm, thinking back on all my examples. The girls usually get by alright but the guys are inevitably broken down in some way. Tatsuhiro, Subaru [from Re:ZERO], and House each get paraded around as hopeless and irredeemably pathetic at least once.
CM: I have a great affection for Yurio [from Yuri!!! on ICE]. What a shitty teen.
VK: THAT GOOD BOY.
PF: He’ s an interesting case because now he is trying to beat Yuri by tapping into his femininity. Don’t see that much outside magical girl series in anime.
CM: Kotetsu [from Tiger and Bunny] probably qualifies as trash as well.
D: I tend to think of Charming Asshole characters as trash, too. In those cases the power dynamic is offset by the fact that they’re generally trying to be heroes/help people along the way.
VK: Yurio’s also pretty much doomed, since he’s in the long line of Sayo Yamamoto‘s “young character in love with an older man who clearly doesn’t see them that way” types.
CM: I think a certain powerlessness is essential to male characters I can affectionately call trash.
CM: I think Peter hit the nail on the head when he said they need a certain patheticness.
PF: I think the male equivalent are inevitably kicked while they are down at some point, like they have to be punished for their imperfections. I’m not even sure if we would perceive them as failings otherwise.
D: Hm, yeah, I do agree with the need for them to be kind of pathetic.
CM: The girls don’t need to be pathetic because they are fairly powerless anyway. They’re fighting against restrictive gender ropes.
PF: Perhaps we think of women as more social beings so any apparent imperfections are, in themselves, failings?
FK: So is there a level of subversiveness inherent to these characters? Regardless of gender?
CM: I think so, Frog.
D: Yeah, for sure.
VK: I mean, I think that’s a point of it – these are characters that blur the binary. Not in overt ways of identity, but in that sort of subtextual way that still appeals.
D: I’ve been reading about feminism in Japan and how there’s been a cultural push and pull for the last century to split it up as “man is breadwinner, woman is caretaker.” I think trash anime characters directly challenge those expectations.
VK: All of my most favorite favorites are trash at this point. They’re just terribly interesting.
FK: In general I like female trash characters more than the male ones. I want to root for them.
PF: Male trash characters are unable to achieve and female trash characters are self-centered and therefore less supportive of those around them, on the whole. So perhaps they are good to challenge societal expectations for each gender. In that light I’d say the male characters are somewhat problematic though. It’s always a love/hate whereas, as Frog said, you want to root for the female. Or at least I find I feel much the same way.
VK: I’d say there’s a love/hate to women as well, depending on who you ask. There’s just a more conscious push against it recently, people trying to think more critically.
D: Yeah, trash women is a fairly new concept, I think. Back in mah day folks would’ve just gone straight to calling them bitches. -_-
PF: That might depend on the viewer, then. Maybe even the perception is gendered.
D: I’m just glad the discussion is expanding and we’re allowing these deeply flawed, self-centered female characters to be enjoyed and celebrated in fandom now.
About the Participants
Amelia Cook has a degree in Japanese Studies and is working towards a master’s degree in film and television. When not working on AniFem she is a freelance writer for websites and magazines on film, television, anime and manga. You can find her on Twitter @neutralfemale.
Caitlin Moore is a Seattle-based preschool teacher and amateur critic with an academic background in linguistics and Japanese language and culture. She runs the blog heroineproblem.com and can be reached on Twitter at @alltsun_nodere.
Dee is a nerd of all trades and a master of one. She has bachelor’s degrees in English and East Asian studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. You can hang out with her at The Josei Next Door, a friendly neighborhood anime blog for long-time fans and newbies alike, as well as on Tumblr and Twitter.
Lauren Orsini is a Gundam pilot who writes about geek culture at Forbes, geek careers at Otaku Journalist, and reviews at Anime News Network. She lives in an apartment full of Gunpla in Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter @laureninspace.
Vrai Kaiser is a queer author and pop culture blogger; they’ve fully embraced their lifetime role as a lover of trash. You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, listen to them podcasting on Soundcloud, support their work via Patreon or PayPal, or remind them of the existence of Tweets.