People often describe shows they don’t like as “emotionally manipulative.” Don’t all shows do that anyway? What do people mean when they talk about “emotional manipulation” like it’s a bad thing?
“Emotionally manipulative” is a dangerous term because, like “forced” or “pretentious,” it’s often used to describe things that simply didn’t appeal to you personally but you can’t actually critique in a meaningful way. That said, it’s also a very valid term, especially so in anime, which often aims to make an emotional connection or (let’s be honest) pander to the viewer’s desires and preferences.
Emotional manipulation basically comes about when a show shortcuts to a sense of drama, sadness, or basically any other emotion that it hasn’t earned through the narrative itself. Normally, empathizing with a character requires first understanding that character as a valid human being – when you employ emotional manipulation, you use other dramatic tricks to avoid the need to fully characterize people and explain the stakes of their feelings. This generally involves something like introducing a simple character and then immediately providing them with a tragic backstory, in an attempt to get the audience to care purely out of human empathy and projection without doing the work to make the audience believe in that character on their own merits (“it’s sad! feel sad!”). Or it can involve a romance that isn’t shown as a series of exchanges that organically grow the relationship between two characters, but is merely told to the audience as a fact, accompanied by a melancholy color palette and an overwhelming musical score (“true love! feel happy!”).
In a well-told story, the viewer will empathize with the character because they have an individual perspective the viewer can understand and believe in – the character might not actually be anything like the audience, but if the audience can understand where the character is coming from and why what is important to them matters to them, then the audience can deeply empathize with them and understand the significance of the events that happen to them, because all the necessary context is there. This allows for a rich variety of emotional experiences to be transmitted to the audience – unlike emotional manipulation, where you basically have to kill a puppy and play on the audience’s natural tendency to project a lot of themselves into any given situation, actual character writing can make the audience feel legitimately new experiences, because they are adopting the sensibilities of an entirely fabricated character who just happens to be carefully designed enough to pass as a viable person. This will always result in more rich and varied storytelling, and transmits an honesty of human experience that emotional manipulation can only imitate by playing on the viewer’s own existing feelings.
Emotional manipulation can work, obviously, but it’s basically like a magic trick – once you see the trick, it’s no longer magic. Its’ emotional power comes from the viewer investing their own feelings into the narrative and basically “filling in the gaps” of unearned development, chemistry, or whatever with their own personality and emotions. Lasting drama or characters that actually reflect human nature and inspire empathy on their own merits require the hard work that emotional manipulation seeks to avoid.
So it’s basically when a show tries to “trick” you into feeling an emotion using methods other than organically developing its characters or relationships?
It’s sometimes a tricky thing to specifically point to, since good writing is not an on-off switch, it’s a spectrum. But in general, yeah, I’d say it’s when a show skips the work of making you empathize with a situation or character naturally through elaborating their perspective in an organic way (showing), and instead immediately attempts to buy your sympathy with a tragic backstory or overwrought music or something (telling). This can be effective, but it in itself is not good storytelling, and in general cues like that should accompany the substantive kind of storytelling. People generally only raise the call of manipulative storytelling because the traditional storytelling is lacking, and because of this it’s failed to emotionally invest anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to caring about the story.
But isn’t all storytelling basically emotional manipulation of one kind or another? It seems like you’re referring to emotional manipulation as a net negative when in reality any story that wants you to feel anything is being “emotionally manipulative.”
You’re right – basically any work of art that seeks to elicit an emotional response in the viewer is trying to create emotions that weren’t naturally there, thus “emotionally manipulating” the viewer. It’s all a matter of degrees, and there’s no hard line, but I was mainly trying to pin down what people are generally talking about (and why they feel that way) when they use it a pejorative sense. Because I think it definitely is a valid complaint – being absolutely unwavering in your belief that one story manipulates well and another poorly is bad, but a story’s ability to elicit an emotional response through well-told drama and a progression of events which both inform and engage the viewer is something that can definitely be meaningfully critiqued.
I think a good barometer here might be “would someone with reasonably informed media preferences and no reason to be predisposed towards this character/story/situation be engaged by this drama?” Because I think the major reason the shortcut-style emotional manipulation is so common is that it is very successful (in fact, probably more successful than traditional storytelling) for audiences that want to be manipulated in a particular way. If you go to the movies wanting to watch a tragic love story and cry, goddamnit you are going to cry. If some single element of a fairly simplistic character deeply appeals to you, you will deeply care about what happens to them. If you want to watch somebody blow up Nazis and fist pump for justice, then yeah, you’ll do that too. Most people want to be manipulated, they just want to be manipulated in different ways.