The very thought of attempting to dissect the term waifu can feel overwhelming. The term is a mimetic manifestation of casual misogyny and ethnic infantilization and also one which has been embraced even by people who are very keen on distinguishing themselves from “weeaboo” incels. This normalization makes it nearly impossible to deliver any sort of critique which will land, especially when women have been a part of that adoption (this doesn’t necessarily make the issue more complex; it just means that it is tougher for people to see it as misogyny if there is equal participation). If we are charting a general course of chronology, our point of origination is a singular pronunciation of “my wife” in the Azumanga Daioh anime, with the mimetic application thereafter being both to mock people who fetishized/claimed ownership over cartoon girls and also a term of endearment by the fetishizers themselves.
In 2020, these applications remain observable, except that 1) states of isolation and depression are, today, demonstrably more prevalent among younger people, and 2) the term’s longevity within online-derived vocabularies has softened its shape and made it eminently adoptable, especially by a demographic of self-styled leftists who, on social media, will put on a “relatable” show about how they are “garbage” and how the stuff they consume — lol anime lololol — is also “garbage.” Such performativity in the context of this discussion is interesting because it affects levels of sarcasm in a way resembling the deflections of the Otaku contingent. And yet, again, a hard line will often be drawn if one tries to show similarities between the two.
This is in part crucial to understanding why the usage of waifu to mock people who do use the term is ineffective. You can’t shame with sarcasm or irony when sarcasm and irony are the lens through which a demographic’s members view themselves and the world. Such self-loathing is the state of people who both hate what they are and would have it no other way. This is why the fantastical simulacrum of the 2D Girl is more potent than what reality could ever offer; and why you get tropes like the generic “loser” guy in manga and anime, both erotic and not, who is ritualistically beaten up or killed by the girls around him. Thus critically ineffective, waifu becomes all the more normalized, all the more mundane. It becomes “wholesome” (for a related phenomenon, consider the normalization of “best girl”). And, as it has amply shown, the meme of “wholesomeness” is a regressive response which depoliticizes content to uphold a status quo and engender happy ignorance.
The ostensible democratizing process has included women referring to men — fictional or real — as husbandos. Although this will tend to be read as less problematic gender-wise, as the history of power dynamics overwhelmingly has favored the husband in marriages, it nevertheless brings to light the racial-linguistic aspect of the word deriving from the slur-concept of “Engrish.” The conclusions one can draw from the pronunciation of English words by native speakers of Asian languages may vary, but, in the context of “Engrish”, the unifying response is that these pronunciations are funny. For terms like waifu or husbando, this funniness becomes cuteness. This does not de-problematize anything; rather, it infantilizes an entire people, treats them as amusing forever-children who spout quotable distortions (not that the opposite would solve the matter, but a common unexamined irony of those entertained by the pronunciation is that they lack a basic fluency in the language of the people they are demeaning).
Let’s acknowledge that responses to this topic by Japanese people themselves can vary, and, as with other topics such as the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s kimono dress-up event, that this variance could be, to an extent, attributable to whether the people are Japanese citizens or not. The problem with these responses is not necessarily the responses themselves but how often, for people who are preemptively dismissive of any problematics, the opinion of Japanese citizens on western appropriations of their culture, whether that is an utterance or a garb, is taken as the final word on the matter. The rationale here is not just the fact of agreement but also that Japanese citizens are more “authentically” Japanese than, e.g., Japanese-Americans, and thus inherently possess greater insight. But, so far, no consistent, verifiable link has been made between place of residence and expertise on global appropriations.
If the previous two paragraphs seem to be in conflict with one another — the first about cultural underestimation, as it were, and the second about overestimation — , it is because they are, but our beliefs need not be consistent with one another. In fact, they often are not. I have observed this friction play out among enthusiasts of Japanese media — mostly cartoons, comics, and videogames — who simultaneously fetishize the nation through a narrow consumption of its contemporary products and believe that its citizens are uniquely, outrageously racist, sexist, and sexually deviant (regarding the latter, see the longstanding meme of Wacky Japan and its “tentacles”). This is another form of de-intellectualizing an entire people and what has largely led to “anime” having been twisted into an insult. Its application as an insult or critique is incoherent except for the common element of the target being Japan-derivative. “Anime” — its real, deepening pathological potency aside — thus becomes a convenient conceptual conglomerate for whatever the person happens to dislike with the barely-implicit implication that only Japanese media could so absurdly objectify fictional women, etc.
This confused circumscribing of identity brings us back to what this essay began with: a significant portion of the people using waifu practicing exceptionalist rhetoric to separate themselves from “creeps.” These are the same people who, upon seeing a female character in a videogame stream, will, with an almost Pavlovian promptness, shout-write waifu in the chatroom. Significant to this response is the usual appearance of these characters: a general slim-curviness of figure and an accentuating or highlighting of certain body parts. Here we can see that waifu is both a lexical tactic for reinforcing a sense of community (“as you say ‘waifu’, so do I”) and reinforcing ideas about what women’s bodies should look like, moreover with the connotation that once those standards have been met the woman’s sole utility, actual or imaginary, is as a domesticated sexual item.
All demographics considered, the community reinforced here and elsewhere remains primarily composed of isolated men who play a lot of videogames and watch a lot of anime. This is confirmed by my attendance at various online communities over the past year for purposes including behavioral observation; but it is not to make light of the very real spiritual problem 20th- and 21st-century modernity has imposed through its supposed empowerment of the individual: the isolation, and alienation, of the individual. Time and again, I have been witness to these men, with ages ranging from early-20s to late-30s, speak about how they have no friends, about how the only sustained contact that they have with other people is by way of online services. It is worth noting that the current international situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this day-to-day experience; now, there may not even be the “What-If” of going out to meet new people.
It is then hardly out of the question that fictional, alluring women represent the only experiences of femininity in these men’s lives — aside, perhaps, from phone calls with their mothers. The homogeneous warpage of this fiction has supplanted the complexly heterogeneous persons, places, and things of reality. This, at least partially, accounts for the at-once worshipful and lustful treatment of female healer archetypes in videogames like Dark Souls and the emergence of the “healslut” cyber-dynamic in Overwatch, et al. These are the yearnings of underdeveloped men who wish for a sort of mother figure to heal their broken lives but who also want a slave receptive to the nastiest of requests. Waifu: in its cutesy affectation, the soft-lipped tremblings of the manchild whose skin is soggy from the over-donning of irony; in its absolute occupational designation of the woman, any woman (so long as she’s sexy!), as “wife”, the resentment of the misogynist who wants his dick sucked already.