Sunday 1 January 2023

Cuties, Asian pop culture and the sexualisation of young girls [TRIGGER ALERT!]

I'm not going to mince my words - if you are prone to lustful thinking then you may want to skip reading this entry. Some of the stuff I'm going to describe may trigger you. Ok, due warning has been given, so here goes...

A couple of years ago, there was an uproar over the release of the movie Cuties on Netflix. Petitions galore were written and #cancelNetflix went viral. The film was accused of doing the very thing it was trying to denounce - sexualising young girls. As a result, Netflix lost a lot of customers.

There were those who opined that the scenes of pre-teen girls performing dance moves imitative of sex acts and the camera angles focusing on their crotches (albeit clothed) qualify as paedophilic porn, hence making the film unlawful. Yet the movie remained on Netflix. 

The online furore died down not long after, but I'm going to jump into the fray and take a slightly different angle to the issue. I'd like to address the problem from our own backyard. 

Human depravity is universal. The phenomenon of men lusting after young girls is not unique to the West. It is in fact a long-standing affair in our neighbourhood. Take for instance, girls as young as 6 performing for adult men in Tokyo nightspots. A former child idol (who's already retired at 24!) claims that, “Men idolising young girls is relatively accepted in Japan,” and supports it by quoting ancient Japanese literature about a nobleman's romance with a young girl.

You may suppose that this is limited to a few sleazy bars. But it is actually a huge industry! There's the popular girl band AKB48, whose youngest members debut at 13, where the girls pose and prance around in bikinis and lingerie on music videos and official merchandise (including a manga comic book series, a monthly newspaper and a collection of video games). At other times, they are featured wearing tight and short school uniforms, perpetuating the schoolgirl fetish among grown men. The music video of one of AKB48's songs My uniform is getting in the way even seems to celebrate the joshi kosei (high school culture/girl) business where high school girls in uniform offer sexual favours for a fee

The fascination for girls in any kind of uniform has contributed to the boom in maid caf├ęs, where young girls in maid uniforms serve and chat with patrons. Those who pay extra get to have photos taken with the girls or enjoy other services. Unfortunately, some of these establishments are actually cover-ups for teenage prostitution.

Sailor Moon has been popular for decades among young children who gradually become desensitised to the highly-sexualised images and themes. Since then, objectification of women through fanservice,  including that of young girls in lolicon and moe characters (e.g. 11-year-old Shiro from No Game No Life and high-schooler Mikuru Asahina from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya respectively), has become commonplace, while hentai and yaoi, and even themes like incest have been normalised. The enthusiasm of the high school girls who work in a maid cafe in Maid Sama! belie the fact that teenage girls are easily drawn into the joshi kosei industry in real life. This is represented in Colorful where a teenage female character goes to a ‘love hotel’ with her patron regularly.

I've been told that printed manga is the modern Asian equivalent of Playboy magazines in Japan. Many of them contain pornographic images and are found in nearly every convenience store, often displayed prominently at children's eye level on magazine racks.

Children and youth worldwide are consuming such highly sexualised materials like anime and manga through the internet. In addition, many of the characters found in the computer games they're playing are often drawn in the same style as anime and manga, and feature scantily dressed women. Cosplaying teenagers even copy the attire and suggestive postures and gestures of anime, manga and game characters.

Whether it's printed and easily available round the corner, or already in the home (and in our children's hands) through TV and online media, sexualisation of children and its normalisation has been taking place right here in Asia. I've only highlighted a few examples but the problem is not unique to Japan. For instance, in the k-pop world young girls are being groomed to dress and dance provocatively. Although steps have been taken to regulate the industry, there seems to be little improvement.

In an article on sexuality education in Singapore schools, a parent was quoted as saying, “We are bombarded by social media, entertainment with images depicting half nudity, heavy makeup, sexual content, swear words and foul language. I cannot wrap my children up and pretend none of these exists. Better for us to acknowledge these, and place things in context.” Unfortunately, parents are not only burying their heads in the sand, many don't even realise there's a problem at all because we have been desensitised by the deluge of sexualised content even in mainstream media.

We need to teach our own children from young as the age of first exposure has been lowered as much as technology has advanced and media has become more easily accessible. With age-appropriate resources and strategies, it is possible to equip them to discern, filter and evaluate the media that they consume, and even be able to influence and help their peers. Here's an article I wrote with tips for parents looking to teach their own children about sexuality. If you'd like to find out more, email me at and let's have a chat!

[Part of this post is extracted from the chapter, "Digital Media and Urban Youth Culture: Engaging Missionally with New Approaches to Storytelling" in the book I co-edited, Arts Across Cultures: Reimagining the Christian Faith in Asia.]

Look out for an upcoming entry where I'll talk about how we can impact culture even in the midst of the massive sexualisation that's taking place...