My Dress-Up Darling embraces eroge the way fans actually do

Image: Cloverworks

My Dress-Up Darling is one of the most beloved anime in 2022 so far. It offered a wholesome look at cosplay and how it connects people. Fans fell for the awkward and adorable romance between series leads Marin, a bubbly cosplayer and popular girl at school, and Gojo, the shy and talented classmate who makes her outfits. It’s through cosplay that the series spreads the message that it’s OK to love what you love, regardless of the stigma attached. But there is one element that struck me about Marin: her love of Saint ♡ Slippery’s Academy for Girls - The Young Ladies of the Humiliation Club: Debauched Miracle Life 2, a fictional eroge (a Japanese portmanteau of “erotic” and “game”) with an 18+ rating.

My Dress-Up Darling manages to talk about Marin and her Slippery Girls fandom in a way that isn’t creepy but instead feels validating. While there are tons of pop culture portrayals of teenage boys and men consuming mature content, there are shockingly few examples for teen girls and women exploring their sexuality and their fandom with adult titles. There are tamer examples of fandom, a la “friend fiction”-writing queen Tina in Bob’s Burgers. But seeing Marin contextualize her love of eroge characters beyond their appearance, and beyond sex, reminded me of why I gravitate to mature content, and honestly, always have.

Throughout My Dress-Up Darling, Marin explains how her favorite character’s personality is not only something she admires, but also an example of how she would like to be. She’s enamored with Slippery Girls’ Shizuku Kuroe thanks to the character’s timid nature and her ability to connect to others. For Marin, cosplaying Shizuku Kuroe is how she shows her love for the character. And as the series progresses, she also cosplays as Black Lobelia, Rizu-kyun, and Prisoner Veronica — each of the characters has their unique brand of sex appeal, but Marin also admires their personalities.

While the show doesn’t shy away from fan service, with close-ups of Marin’s body as she uses cosplay to emulate a character’s appearance, the series always returns to the core theme of what the cosplay means to Marin: her love for the character. This resonated with me, a woman who has always loved erotic content, but didn’t feel comfortable talking about it until I was in my very late 20s. While something may just be smut to one reader, it can also be a piece of media that others connect with.

Not every piece of smut is narratively revelatory; it can just be sex scenes with nothing else. But other times, I get pulled in because of the characters’ journeys, relationships, hardships, and for the cathartic romantic ending. As I explored josei smut (often heterosexual romances directed at 18+ women) and 18+ GL (girls’ love) or BL (boys’ love), this became very clear. I can love these characters, get excited to read the sexy bits, and also have emotional reactions to the story while exploring myself as well. I have read stories that will have 10 chapters of non-stop sex scenes and then crescendo in a dramatic conflict of self-discovery. It’s a complex and nuanced relationship with adult content that is rarely depicted on screen, especially in the wholesome way My Dress-Up Darling portrays it.

Image: Cloverworks

Recently, I’ve made a point to share my love of erotica, specifically in the manga space. This also means I publicly share my excitement when those smutty manga titles get adaptations, especially when it comes to titles that center queer romances.

But getting to the place where I didn’t feel the need to hide my love of this mature media was hard. It always felt like acknowledging I enjoyed erotica somehow took away from the importance of anime as a medium, or like I was giving anime’s critics ammunition to use. When I started watching anime, I often spent time reassuring non-anime watchers around me that I didn’t watch hentai, didn’t read smut, and didn’t play eroge. The mature elements of the medium were things I shunned out of fear of being judged, and my responses were an attempt to create a certain perception of anime in response to people cracking jokes.

Anime, like many other forms of entertainment, is no stranger to sexualizing characters, especially in shonen series, which are geared toward teenage boys (My Dress-Up Darling is a seinen series, which is geared toward slightly older audiences, but has a number of shonen elements). I encountered this a lot when watching shonen anime: Like when Naruto has a sexy Ninjutsu, and the strongest of Bleach’s female shinigami have breasts that would break a real human’s back. This type of fan service continues to be discussed and debated as a part of anime as a medium, especially when present in stories that aren’t explicitly sexual.

There’s also ecchi, a genre of anime and manga that uses sexual concepts — often for comedic purposes — but never crosses the line into being explicitly pornographic. A well known example is Food Wars!, a series that was actually illustrated by a hentai artist. Here, you know exactly what you’re getting into. It’s going to be absurd, sexy, and include anime boobs that will don mousepads and body pillows alike. The humor often used in these series helps set the tone for what to expect: fan service.

Image: Cloverworks

My Dress-Up Darling directly engages with ecchi and fan service in its story, through the characters cosplaying media like Slippery Girls. But it also often shows Marin’s body from Gojo’s perspective, which is sexualized. That said, Gojo is consistently trying to understand his feelings for Marin, respect her boundaries, and tell her when he’s uncomfortable as well. While a close up of Marin’s breasts or legs can be excessive, those shots are contextualized within a story about a teen boy falling for his best friend while attempting to understand his comically overwhelming and often horny feelings.

Growing up in an extremely religious household, I was taught that women specifically shouldn’t care about sex. I was told I shouldn’t engage with it or have it, and should essentially pretend it doesn’t exist. I wish I had been able to watch My Dress-Up Darling when I first explored the world of content out there, if only to show me, in one character, that there wasn’t anything wrong with me.

If there is one thing I want My Dress-Up Darling to do for women watching the show, it’s to continue to normalize consuming eroge and exploring various mediums of adult content.

My Dress-Up Darling is available to stream on Crunchyroll.

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