Bellydancing on the Verduous Planet: Gargantia and Sociocultural Appropriation

 Suisei no Gargantia - 05 [720p]_May 15, 2013 11.55.39 AM

I was eleven when I first traveled to Dharavi, the biggest slum system in Mumbai, India. I had only taken my small, hand stitched Indian purse, wearing my dupatasalwar kameez, and chaupals that cost about 180 rupees. My father firmly gripped my wrist to the point where it hurt as we quickly turned into a small alley. Behind me, two naked children on the dirty, trash-filled road, began to cry.

My father was taking me to a very old doctor – one of the best in Mumbai, he proclaimed. I had a serious kind of food illness and he was not prepared to take me to the hospital, since they would charge more as I had come from the United States. “The doctors in the hospitals are all conmen,” he told me as he led me up the stairs into a rusty, dismantled room, made of metal scrap. “This is a man who has helped people of all kind – rich, poor, old, young – and has never really asked for anything in return.”

I don’t really remember much else after that occasion; just the old man, sitting in the corner of the room, empty metal bowls by his side. I remember seeing flashes of colorful saris on the way back in contrast to the smell of feces. I remember seeing naked children and buckets of dirty water. The next time I would come back would be six years later, when I joined a program that was devoted to educating children in the slums. I spent a month there, scrubbing girls’ backs with tough soap and rubbing their palms, trying to teach them basic addition and subtraction. I dressed them up, I took them home, I spoke garbled rural Hindi to their mothers and fathers as they served me whatever they could – often a glass of water or chai. And every time I came back to the large building devoted to this section of the slum, I would see sex workers, hands reached out, smirks and gazes everywhere. I saw men beat up their wives, casting them out of their homes, breaking their bangles and cursing at them. I saw rape. And yet, I also found a certain sort of kindness in the neighborhoods. I saw women clean other women’s children, or pass food along. The frugality was clean; no food was left untouched or overturned. Everything was recycled to the point where the only waste that existed was stuff that only could be thrown away, unable to be used. It was through all of this that I realized: I was a privileged ghost that lived through the lives of these children, through the town itself. And it is ironic then, that the one month I spent in Dharavi, taught me more about how to live than any of the cultural lessons I learned from Hindu school or Mumbai itself.

Suisei no Gargantia doesn’t give off the same, rich feeling of course; it’s not meant to. The show spends most of its time raising itself as a show that is more about life values than mecha battles. Whereas most mecha shows opt to focus on the robots themselves, Gargantia separates itself by spending more time on the life of Gargantia and its denizens. The result is a world that’s astonishingly colorful and creative: towns built on ships, remains of an ancient civilization attempting to trace its roots and learn more about where it comes from. Gliders zoom across the sky and Yunboros scavenge the seas beneath, looking for lost treasure. Children run through the bazaars while adults use tents and pots to collect water. It’s all breathtaking, and for 5 weeks, I was mesmerized by this creation. I was immersed in a world that bore somewhat of a resemblance to my own hometown in Goa, a neighborhood similar to the one I saw in Dharavi, without the darkness and corruption found in those particular alleys and households.

Episode 6 however, brings us to a grimmer reality of the situation at hand. One of the main characters, Amy, is shown to prepare herself for the “carnival” that is going to take part soon in the town. As we find out, it’s not just any regular preparation; Amy takes part in this celebration by belly dancing with her two best friends, in a crowd full of men. The thought of it alone doesn’t seem too bad, right? Amy’s just dancing along and expressing her individuality! Or so we think.

Riiiiiiighhhhhhttt.

There are two issues I find with this scene. Neither of them have to do with belly dancing itself. Belly dancing is not a sign of cultural appropriation; to say this would be like saying yoga could only be performed by Indians themselves. Belly dancing is an art – a dance that encourages women and men to express themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that! The problems then, stem from how this belly dancing is used within context (and out of it). The first issue is the fact that this belly dancing has no cultural significance. Within slums, belly dancing was used as a way of gaining a customer for sex work. It was also sometimes a traditional ritual for certain poojas  or way of paying respect for Indian gods. Many women became belly dancers as a way of creating a life for themselves – obtaining money and work, and also the prospect of getting a husband. The music, dance, and clothing all depended on what, and who, the women would belly dance for. But in Gargantia, there’s no suggestion that Amy is using belly dancing for these purposes. And to an extent, that would be fine – perhaps Amy is just belly dancing because she likes to! Maybe it is a way for her to express herself through dance; a simple hobby, nothing more.

That’s where the second problem comes in, regarding how this belly dance is portrayed. It is exploitative. The camera zooms in on Amy’s curves, her jiggling breasts and butt. The clothes Amy wears are incredibly skimpy, intended to allure and distract. They bear no cultural significance or intrinsic value. Amy is not using this dance to inspire confidence in herself. The camera is not from her point of view. It is from a male’s. And thus, this belly dance has no significance to it, other than the fact that it’s a simple use of fanservice. There’s nothing more to the scene: just Amy pandering to the audience with a dance that is all too often exploited in film and media. Thus the entire scene of the belly dance has no real meaning.

The idea alone is disturbing, but it also contributes to one of the larger problems Gargantia suffers from: a lack an understanding on how slum culture works. It chooses, like so many other shows and movies, to romanticize the aspects without inspecting the basic elements of what constitutes a slum. Instead of depicting a fascinating and realistic world of shantytowns that are connected through an inherited culture changed through reinterpretation, we get glimpses of men huddling around little campfires. We have sex workers being made fun of – crossdressers who try to beg the main character into joining their business, not out of desperation or the need for money, but just because. And we have belly dancers – girls who could very possibly be sex workers, trying to make a living for themselves, finding empowerment through dance and cultural tradition – being used exploitatively as fanservice. None of the life that I saw in Dharavi – both the bad and even the good, is really reflected in the show. Instead of looking inside Gargantia, we are looking at the outside.

Sound familiar?

And it’s a shame too, because Gargantia has the potential to step out of its already new circle and jump into something a little more daring – to become a little more adventurous, and to take strides in depicting a world we don’t get to see very often! Yes, Gargantia‘s world is fictional and so are its characters. But to excuse this and say that just because Gargantia is a fictional world doesn’t mean we can judge its content would be wrong. All of fiction stems from reality; media does not function in a social vacuum.

So by all means, if you will, continue to have that grill party, or gloss over Ledo’s chase to find work in a world not run by capitalism, but by gleaners. In doing so however, Gargantia continues to become less of a show about Gargantia, and more of your run-of-the-mill series about finding adventure in a shantytown – a basic plot I’m all too familiar with, frankly speaking.

Advertisements

20 responses to “Bellydancing on the Verduous Planet: Gargantia and Sociocultural Appropriation

  1. A little bit too over analytical in your arguments about why the dancing scene was exploitative. The scene was supposed to showcase Ledo’s maturity into sexual interests in Amy. How he looks at her dance showcases this very beautifully.

    • Here’s the thing about the cultural appropriation and the exploitation of foreign cultures in media: it’s not about what a shot, scene, episode, series was supposed to do; it’s about what it did. And if illegenes, an Indian woman, thought that the bellydancing was exploitative or appropriating or whatever then I would trust her judgement on the issue and not try to deflect and move the goalposts in order to justify your own views on the matter without bothering to actually listen to the arguments presented by the opposing party.

      Even if I we do focus in on the issue of whether of not the dancing scene was exploitative or not over the larger issues illegenes was talking about on this post: guess what? It is. The same thing as I said above is applicable here: despite what the show wanted to do or meant to do with this sequence, what they actually did was objectify a woman’s body.

      The camera zooms in on Amy’s curves, her jiggling breasts and butt. The clothes Amy wears are incredibly skimpy, intended to allure and distract. They bear no cultural significance or intrinsic value. Amy is not using this dance to inspire confidence in herself. The camera is not from her point of view. It is from a male’s.

      Amy’s body is not her body, but some jiggling breasts and ass for Ledo to attain, and illegenes made that point very well.

      I’m sorry if I seem angry, I do not feel that way and is simply a result of trying to quickly reply to you and get to my main point that logical fallacies are one of my biggest pet peeves and I won’t tolerate them.

      • I appreciate your feedback, so let me try to explain more clearly why I disagree with you.

        I understand clearly how illigenese’s upbringing in India had influenced her decision to write about how she thought the belly dancing scenes were meaninglessly out of place. I really do considering how I actually read the entire thing twice. But this is where I found the holes in her theory very flawed. For starters, what does the fact that her upbringing in India and the origination of belly dancing have anything to do with the show itself? Clearly India is gone from civilization in Gargantia so why bring it up in the first place? I understand that her reasoning is that fiction can derive from real accounts of history or cultural aspects of society, but that’s nothing more than an underlying metaphor that people come up with to make sense of any story, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the narrative itself. Critics should judge a show based on their own merits, not by some outside influences that don’t have anything to do with the actual quality of the work.

        You don’t make assumptions out of real-life aspects of human nature based on fiction because the fictional world and the real world are two different realities to even compare. That’s only unless the director and writers intended the show to be something of that nature, to which there’s no evidence whatsoever to even come up from any of the staff of Gargantia. That’s the same thing as when several fans of Miyazaki came up with a theory about Spirited Away that had to do with the fact that it was actually whorehouse and not a bathhouse that Chihiro was a part of. Even though Miyazaki had some inspiration with the sex industry with Spirited Away, the actual plot of the film never really transpired into making it that way in the first place.

        To answer the argument that the dancing scene was exploitative, let me just try to remind you what the Gargantia world is like. There’s water everywhere and typically the climate of Gargantia isn’t very cold at all so you’d expect people to wear less clothing. The bikini episode felt very naturally because of how the atmosphere felt so lighthearted and down-to-earth from the setting and the character interactions. Now the dancing episode might be an easy one to find exploitative, but when you look at it in the grand scheme of things it does feel a lot natural since it takes place in a showbiz kind of environment where it seemed as though this kind of thing is a part of the culture.

        Now the camera panning to Amy, Saaya, and Melty’s ass and breasts might set off a red flag in the exploitative angle. However, I would argue the opposite in that it’s a much more intuitive way of showing how Ledo views the girls and how he feels attraction towards Amy, something that he had no experience of at all. It’s the eyes from the male because we’re looking at Amy from Ledo’s perspective and how he envisions Amy as a very beautiful girl that he’s starting to have feelings for. It would be a bit pointless to put it in Amy’s perspective since Ledo is the one character that we’re following around through most of the story.

        “Amy’s body is not her body, but some jiggling breasts and ass for Ledo to attain, and illegenes made that point very well.”
        Um, what? Amy is Amy no matter what position she’s in. Again, like I said before, the show wants to build up a relationship between Amy and Ledo, so having her dancing to him near the end solidifies their friendship and gives it a solid development between them, even though the show hardly ever came back to it in the 2nd half which sucked. To say that they objectified Amy and her body is a bit of an exaggeration in that for me all I saw was a bunch of girls belly dancing in a very risque fashion. I don’t mean to think that I think that girls wearing skimpy outfits and doing sexy stuff is 10/10 material all the time but there are far worse examples of this like the Queen Blade series which is very blatant in its fan service and offers nothing in return while Gargantia did.

        I’m sorry if I made to sound like a fanboy of Gargantia, which I’m not after the huge disappointment of the last 2-3 episodes. I never good on trying to encapsulate an entire blog post as my first impression because it’s extremely tedious to do. So I just want to make that clear.

  2. Pingback: To Dominate It | Plastic Monocle·

  3. I think the above analysis makes one big false assumption: that the creators were trying to draw from slum culture in the first place.

    This leads to the author missing the most important point: that the belly dancing is merely a continuation of the general trend of shoddy worldbuilding.

    First, this reliance on your India experience is not helpful. Belly dancing originated in the Middle East. If they were drawing on any culture for this performance or Gargantia as a whole, evidence says Indian slum-culture would not be it. Gargantia is not like a slum. These people are trying to survive what to us appears like a harsh world, but they do not actually live in absolute poverty. They get the daily nutrition they need; they get an education of sorts (the ill brother can read and has access to all the books he wants); they have access to healthcare (the doctor); they have remarkable technology to ease their workload; everyone has a steady income; they get a healthy amount of leisure time; presumably, the women are considered equals because they get commanding positions and work alongside the guys on heavy machinery. Gargantians are basically enabled to live their lives freely in a way slum-dwellers are not. So why critique the show for something it hasn’t actually done?

    Second, you posit at the start that Gargantia’s world is ‘astonishingly’ rich. You thereby credit the show with a creative capacity that’s not actually there. In fact, the world of Gargantia never makes it beyond being an interesting CONCEPT. For example, one episode they are all meticulously gathering water and talking about how vital it is; the next minute they are creating huge water fountains for no apparent reason except the show wanted a spectacle. If that’s seawater, that’s going to help rust up your ship real quick. Meat in a waterworld would be rare, but look at them rearing herds of cows – RESOURCE-GUZZLING COWS – on the ship. The pirates at the start of the show were an incredibly lazy plot device (boobalicious pirate queen? Really?). Then they squandered about 50 kilos of meat on a barbecue for a stranger because he was a bit upset! But what’s the Gargantians’ philosophy on life in detail? Where did this philosophy come from? What is the rationale behind the clothes they wear (especially the women)? What lies beyond the Gargantia fleet? What myths and legends do these people hold? How are children reared? Does being Captain mean you also get more money and more power outside of the control room? Or is it, beyond the narrow command structure, fairly egalitarian? How the hell do they have the resources to build mecha??? We know nothing about any of these things, but we did get a nifty episode on swimwear, though!

    When you put the belly dancing into this context, you realise there must have been little actual thinking behind it. Just like there couldn’t have been much thinking behind many things in Gargantia. The belly dancing (like the beach episode) is a desperate ploy of creators who have run out of ideas to keep viewers engaged throughout a seriously poor set of episodes. And, in tried and tested anime style, they resort to flagrantly sexist and discriminatory imagery to pander to what they perceive to be a largely heterosexual male audience. Hey, free tits and arse for everyone! How about some comedy transvestites? Har har! Isn’t that FUNNY! Because making fun of the LGBT demographic is REALLY REALLY CLEVER AMIRITE!

    So yeah, I wouldn’t worry that they ‘lack an understanding on how slum culture works’ – there was never an attempt to understand it. This is about bad writing and the old knee-jerk resort to harmful stereotypes to keep up ratings. Sadly for them, even the hetero male target audience is not buying this crap. Get back to the plot, Gargantia.

    • First of all, I’d like to thank you for reading this post! Your complaints are very valid. I do make a large assumption here by comparing Gargantia’s culture to that of a slum culture, and yes, we haven’t been given any actual details or allusions to confirm that its culture runs similarly. And the belly dance is yet another example of the flawed world building Gargantia attempts to correct but only fails to do so.

      My idea to connect belly dancing and slum culture wasn’t just based on my Indian experiences – I will argue that while belly dancing does not originate from India, it still has a very large importance in Indian culture, especially slum culture. I perceive Gargantia’s culture to be similar to that of a slum’s based on my collective experiences as a human being. Yes, that’s a huge inference, and it may not necessarily be true, but that is how I see Gargantia’s culture, nonetheless.  That said, I created this post having two focuses in mind: 1.) To disprove people who thought that the belly dance scene was something more meaningful or purposeful than just fanservice, and 2.) to talk about how Gargantia seemed to be glossing over the important and darker aspects of what constitutes slum culture (based on how I saw Gargantia as a slum culture of sorts). I think however, that you seem to be confused by the fact that I don’t see Gargantia as a slum system, but as a slum culture. It doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. But for specifics -as you’ve pointed out, some Gargantian citizens – the main characters – have access to a doctor, to ‘education’ and to a healthy income. My part of the post referring to slum culture does not entail that. There are people who obviously lack those resources as we saw in episodes 5-6 clearly when Ledo goes through some of the poorer parts of town. That area is not obviously rich! That is where I infer that Gargantia does have a slum culture based on similar scenes and environment I have seen in my own life (lack of proper health and clothing and shelter, tranvestites etc).

      Thus, I disagree that Gargantia lacks slum culture; however, I can see how you would disagree based on the fact that Amy, a girl who does earn a living through other means, is my tool for connecting the two worlds. My point though, is not really regarding Amy, but the belly dance itself, which, like I said, lacks any proper social or cultural context whatsoever and is thus fanservice. Your argument is more of what mine ties into – that is, the fact that Gargantia has shoddy worldbuilding (when I say breathtaking, I meant visually – I apologize for not stating that outright). My focus on the belly dancing was not to prove that it was a sign of flawed worldbuilding however; it was to logically deduce the inappropriateness of the scene and how it was reducing Amy and appropriating belly dancing in both slum culture and in general. However, I do agree that the belly dance scene is also a large sign of how weak the world building in Gargantia is – it just wasn’t the focus of my post, that’s all.

      But like you’ve pointed out – Gargantia has such an interesting world and ideas that all sound great on paper, but have failed to come to life on the screen. It’s a big shame too, considering how fascinating the subject could have been if it were explored properly. I don’t have hopes that this will be resolved in the future either – Gargantia has made it clear that it has chosen to focus on Ledo and his humanity/the mystery of the Hideauze, and thus a big opportunity is lost.

  4. I find watching Gargantia a frustrating experience, what with one half of the show attempting serious social commentary, while the other relentlessly exploits the fact that character designer (Hanaharu Naruko) is apparently most known for writing doujinshi. The last two episodes in particular have been so pervasive & in the viewers face, that it overshadows the more substantial elements of the story. Sadly, for all the interesting concepts & directorial touches, Gargantia is yet another example of both the strengths & weaknesses found in Japanese society (or at least how it is presented in anime), being highly insightful & confrontational with topics it is familiar with, yet woefully ignorant to the point of insult when dealing with subjects outside of its expertise. Ultimately at this point, I can’t see the setting being used for much other than exotic window-dressing to show the cast in various states of undress, although I really hope I’m proven wrong on this.

    Anyway, thanks for the personal account in this post. It was an excellent read.

  5. In short: Mindless fanservice stemming from laziness. (Or maybe not laziness, more like they’re marketing toward teens, and those kids like things to be simple, right?)

    • I’m not sure if I would call Gargantia a product of laziness as I would say that it just refuses to venture into territory that is usually unclaimed by most anime. By itself, the show isn’t necessarily bad – it’s bright and colorful, and has some solid character development here and there, but for the most part, it’s just very limited in depth. It COULD go further, but it chooses not to, either because it doesn’t know how or because it wants to focus on something else. I don’t think that’s lazy, but I do think that’s a poor decision on part of the directorial department.

  6. How committed are you to this show by now? I gave up past ep. 4, which to me displayed “hamfistedness pyrotechnics” at their best. I disliked ep. 3 generally (incomprehensible motives, etc.), and the series for its bait-and-switch premise — but what you’ve written has always been a part of my assessment.

    The superficiality was off; it was…maybe akin to how Orientalism got Europeans so crazed in the 19th century. This sense of order vs. mystery-chaos. Whatever. The story isn’t really assessing cultural values closely (instead, incoherent ramblings) which gets me head-scratching: wasn’t that the goal in the first place? Facepalm, groan, head shake. It just doesn’t care.

    Alas, it doesn’t even do objectification carefully, because those elements end up forced in. Diebuster “forced” that stuff in, too, but was working with a really intriguing theme. Let me ogle Rackage in peace, but don’t distract me by lowering yourself to my level as a writer. I expect you to stay level-headed.

    • I’m still somewhat committed to it – it’s a show I do end up sort of looking forward to every week, but it’s not something I’m enthusiastically invested in, due to the problems I’ve shared above. And as you’ve noted, there seems to be this superficiality that glosses over the entire show, and while it does make the show look appealing and bright, it also hides the flaws and lack of depth Gargantia has. There are often too many misogynic moments in the show for me to sit comfortably through, and while Ledo is an interesting character, I just don’t connect much with the others.

      Though I’d argue that Diebuster didn’t really have any forced elements since to me, it was all about the big and the expansive, I will admit that Gargantia DOES feel forced at times. This belly dance scene was one of them, which is why I felt compelled (with other certain anibloggers’ help) to write a post on it.

      • Sure, I follow. Even as early as the butt-touching in ep. 1 I raised an eyebrow at how…out of nowhere it seemed. Such things continued.

        My point about Diebuster was unclear, oops; I wasn’t talking about the world. I was referring to the objectification thing that wendeego so well pointed out, that the character ogling is precisely thematic to begin with and not merely…selfish? Or indulgent? So the claim that it’s forced only comes from a superficial, careless reading.

  7. How would you feel if I told you that this episode was done by Shigeyasu Yamauchi? Because I was surprised and a bit confused/disappointed.

    Good post, though. It captures one of my bigger problems with the show in that it seems like it’s been trying to be about Ledo discovering and exploring the culture of the Gargantia, but there hasn’t been much exploration beyond the very surface level. Ledo – and thus, the viewer – is getting the “tourist version” of the world, and we aren’t getting to see much of the significance of it. What have the bellydancing and the crossdressers and the feasts and everything we’ve seen during these worldbuilding episodes actually told us about the world? Not very much, other than that their world is “exotic” and “different from ours and Ledo’s” – like a token “different” culture for Ledo to encounter. I’d have liked to have been able to get a deeper look into the world, but it looks like the second half will probably be moving towards a conclusion about Ledo fighting off the Hideauze and some kind of romantic thing with Amy. Oh well.

    I guess I’d be pleased to learn that I was wrong and the show did actually do a decent job at developing the culture beyond their combat relationship with the pirates and I just wasn’t paying attention because I got bored by everything else? But I somehow don’t think so.

    • Heheh, I’ve been there! (Dream Eater Merry was both a surprise and a disappointment for me) But I do agree with you – the show has become more focused on trying to develop Ledo’s humanity and his awkward budding relationships with the people around him. As a result a lot of the fascinating aspects of Gargantia have remained hidden to the audience, and it’s sad, because when I first tuned in, I was under the impression that I would get a share of both world building and character development. And as you’ve pointed out, the show hasn’t even bothered to take a deeper look at the idea of pirates, or other ships that might be like Gargantia and hold towns on them. To conclude: there’s a lot the show has missed out on, and it’s a sad thing because a lot of this information would have been beneficial to the characters too!

      That said we’re only halfway through, so they still might give us some of the world building you and I crave so much, but I highly doubt it. Like you’ve said, it seems they’re more interested in focusing on Ledo trying to get back home and fighting those Octopus Hideauze. :/

  8. Yes, Gargantia‘s world is fictional and so are its characters. But to excuse this and say that just because Gargantia is a fictional world doesn’t mean

    Doesn’t mean what? DOESN’T MEAN WHAT!?

  9. I wanted to say that I love this article except for one correction, belly dancing in fact comes from the Middle East and North Africa, not India. In India they have their own dance traditions like odissi, bharatnayam and kathak among many many others.

    • Oh I apologize if any section of my post came off that way! I didn’t mean to infer that belly dancing was originally Indian – I was trying to suggest that belly dance, in itself is not an act of cultural appropriation. But yes, that’s absolutely true!

      • No worries, it’s just *so many* people make the mistake and I couldn’t figure out whether you were saying that it was Indian or as you said that it is not inherently appropriative, so I thought I’d just clarify to be sure! As a belly dancer, this article was a great thing to read, not enough good information out there! Thank you for writing it!

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s