National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Idols put Band-Aids on fragile male egos

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Two cities in Tottori Prefecture have set up a facility called the Tottori Deai Support Center, which is a kind of matchmaking service for young residents. In December it published a pamphlet to help people looking for mates better understand what the opposite sex wanted.

Men, the pamphlet explained, are looking for wives who will give them “comfort.” It helped if the candidate was a good cook and “liked children,” but they also should be aware that men “like to be flattered” and require “healing” at the end of the day. As for women, the pamphlet said they want husbands who don’t lie, work hard and are “gentle and sincere.”

After several months of complaints the center withdrew the pamphlet. Criticism focused on its outdated stereotypes, in particular the passive nature of the “desirable wife” described in the text. Less scrutiny was applied to the pamphlet’s image for men, which made full use of hoary cliches. But women, in the final analysis, didn’t really come across as passive as the writers said they are because what the pamphlet implied — particularly with regard to flattery — is that in order to guarantee a smooth relationship, a woman must be wise to the emotional fluctuations of her spouse so that he can properly function as a breadwinning drone. Central to this claim is the idea that women rely on men and want them to be proactive as heads of household, but an undeniable corollary of the thesis is that it is up to the woman to create an environment where the man can do those things. In effect, women have more agency in the relationship than men do.

This tired dynamic is at work to a certain extent in the new single by the teen female idol collective HKT48, “Einstein yori Dianna Agron” (“Dianna Agron rather than Einstein”). The song has also attracted a fair amount of criticism for its “message,” which, as encapsulated in the title, imparts that a girl doesn’t need intelligence or an education, only the good looks and feminine charms of U.S. actress Dianna Agron, as well as an attitude that can take full advantage of those qualities.

HKT48 is the Hakata, Fukuoka annex of the AKB48 pop music juggernaut, which means the song was written by AKB svengali Yasushi Akimoto. Some media outlets have charged him with sexism. The song’s video shows four teenage members lounging around and singing in affectless nasal tones about how “it’s OK to have an empty brain” and “be stupid in school” as long as “you know how to apply makeup” and possess “smooth skin.”

Many of the complaints on Twitter zeroed in on Akimoto’s poor grasp of American pop culture. Dianna Agron plays the manipulating blonde cheerleader Quinn Fabray on the American TV series “Glee,” about a high school singing club. Akimoto seems to think that Agron herself represents an example of girlhood whose only goal in life is “to be adored,” as the refrain goes. Japanese fans of the show berated Akimoto for not doing his homework. If he had actually watched “Glee” he’d know that Quinn is a straight-A student and, in any case, Agron does charity work for needy children.

Both approaches miss the point. In her Shukan Asashi column, writer and sex goods retailer Minori Kitahara says that the song “rots my ears” every time she hears it, but she believes it has less meaning for girls than it does for the men who admire AKB and its ilk. It’s an indirect dig at HKT’s male fans for being emotionally and sexually stunted. The girls are anything but dumb. On the contrary, they’re calculating in their cuteness, acting like bimbos in front of the patrons, but once the guys are out of the room the girls can be whatever they want. This convention is central to the idol ethos: If you want to survive in show business, you have to act the way your fans want you to act. Otherwise you fail as idols.

In a recent interview with Aera magazine to commemorate the 10th anniversary of AKB48, Akimoto addressed neither the controversy nor his company’s April 23 cease-and-desist letter to the website Litera, which earlier posted an article stating that the HKT single expressed “disdain for women.” Instead, he talked about how he built an empire “without any plan,” and that his charges didn’t really trust him until they saw how his ideas could be successful. “You can explain all you want,” he said, “but the most persuasive thing is a hit song.”

And while it wasn’t his initial plan to “link” the AKB narrative to social trends, that is what happened and why, he thinks, this particular type of idolhood has been so resonant. What makes AKB different from similar acts in the past is their self-awareness as idols. The members know not only how their fans see them, but how non-fans see them, too.

Ever since female idols first emerged as a subset of pop singers in the late 1960s, their careers have been shaped by male lyricists, who presented them as slaves to love, a trope that has always existed in pop but is usually accompanied by desperation and regret. Idols reveled in their dependence. Momoe Yamaguchi, the biggest idol singer of the ’70s, reportedly hated the image and quit the business after she made enough money to last her the rest of her life. Others happily bought into it, including Chiyo Okumura’s sex kitten, Seiko Matsuda’s chiffon-clad airhead and Akina Nakamori’s soiled delinquent. It was Kyoko Koizumi who first made that image the subject of a song with the 1985 hit “Nantettatte Idoru” (“After All, I’m an Idol”), a tongue-in-cheek term paper on what she was all about as a star: “being pure, proper and beautiful,” “playing dumb” and “wanting people to go crazy over me.” It was written by Akimoto. “Einstein yori Dianna Agron” is just a less circumspect and more long-winded update — which isn’t to say it isn’t sexist.

Sexism is built into the business model. But critics have mistaken the song’s flippant cynicism for advocacy. Sure, it would be nice if HKT48 used its platform to condemn hate speech or, more relevant to their situation, promote responsible birth control, but idols by definition have their limits.