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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Do Fans of Cartoon Porn Stars Hate (Real) Women?

Projekt Melody doesn’t do much but sway, but every swish of her cartoon hips is met with a horny digital howl. When she takes off her barely-there top, revealing what she calls her “big ol’ anime titties,” her fans shower her with hearts and wide-eyed emoji. When she uploads a 13-minute lecture about whether hentai, a sexually explicit anime genre, is art or porn, it gets more than 200,000 views. When one eye freezes half-closed like a broken doll’s, followers take screenshots and fawn over them. “Broken face is the best face,” one comments. To fans, the occasional glitches seem to be something like digital dimples.

Melody claims to be the world’s first hentai camgirl. Though her creators are loath to admit it, the Melody character is, of course, a fiction. Melody was designed by the animator Digitrevx to resemble a fusion of popular anime characters, including Mokoto Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. The character’s appearance, physics, and speech are rendered in real time using Unity, a videogame engine. Projekt Melody has swelled into a multiplatform phenom: It—“she,” if we must—is on Twitter, YouTube, Patreon, and, yes, PornHub. Melody has appeared in music videos and on Japanese morning shows. A week and a half ago, Melody appeared on Chaturbate, a site that allows cam models to livestream sexually explicit videos and chat with fans. As Vice first reported, the avatar seduced 10,000 followers in just three days. Today, the audience is nearing 20,000.


According to Melody’s fanbase, this is only the beginning. Most Melody-based memes swirl around the same theme: the idea that virtual women are the future, an upgrade to flesh and blood. The sloganeering is endless. “The future is now.” “Reject tradition, embrace modernity.” Most succinctly: “Bots not thots.” (“Thot” is crude slang for a promiscuous woman, an acronym for “that ho over there.”) They foresee an internet swarming with Melodys. They’re probably wrong; they might be right. Either way, being virtual is becoming an asset.

If you ask Melody—and I was given no other option, despite requests to speak to an actual human—it all started with an infection. “Last year, I was just a basic AI that scanned emails for malware. I accidentally opened up an email with an adult virus that infected my code,” Melody “wrote” to me in an email. “Ever since then I've been more and more obsessed with human sexuality.” Camming, apparently, just seemed like fun. Worldbuilding aside, Digitrevx (or someone capable of typing) seems to have begun developing the Projekt Melody brand last year on Twitter, where Melody first acted as a broken piece of software and then as an AI gradually acquiring sentience and interest in having a “real” body. “Excuse. How do make a person when not a person??” one early tweet reads. By the time Melody started streaming on Chaturbate, Digitrevx had imbued the character with a better command of English and an unquenchable sex obsession.

The character’s sudden popularity wouldn’t have happened if internet culture wasn’t primed for it. Online interest in hentai goes back decades: 4chan got its start as an anime forum, and hentai appealed to 4channers for several reasons. It’s transgressive, which edgelords can’t get enough of. This is a genre that features girls with tails and hooves having sex with tentacle monsters. It’s also hypersexualized—its characters not only have anatomically impossible bodies but are often submissive to their male counterparts. For an isolated man or teenage boy, especially one who feels rejected by and unattractive to living women, hentai is a thrill.

On top of the intrinsic appeal, there’s the rise of VTubers—cartoon “virtual YouTubers”—and other virtual influencers. “Hatsune Miku and Kizunai Ai are huge inspirations,” Melody’s minder, as Melody, tells me. “Kizuna started the entire VTuber genre a few years ago, so I wouldn't be here without her coming first.” Hatsune Miku is a piece of voice-processing software that has become a sort of virtual pop star and an object of admiration for many. A Japanese man married a hologram of Hatsune Miku in 2018.

These characters have seen the most success and attention in Japan and in communities that have a strong interest in Japanese culture (like 4chan), but anime-style characters aren’t the only virtual celebrities. Virtual Instagram star Lil Miquela, whose appearance is realistically human, has come closest to mainstream Western success. Miquela even starred in a Calvin Klein advertisement opposite model Bella Hadid, who she appeared to kiss. The virtual influencer also made (negative) headlines last year after claiming to be sexually assaulted by a rideshare driver.

Two things binds these characters together: insisting that they are both real and fake, and sex. Although VTubers are cartoons, they are far more personality-driven than, say, a nonplayable character in a videogame. Lil Miquela frequently describes herself as a “robot girl” but also appears out in the real world and alongside celebrities. Like Melody, she does her own interviews. Brud, the LA-based company that runs Lil Miquela’s accounts, is as evasive as Digitrevx (and/or whoever else is involved in operating Melody). Brud’s “website” is a Google doc titled “💖 website_copy_wip_for_all_my_qtz 💖”. Since the sexual assault scandal, the company has basically stopped speaking to anyone. After making a few scant comments, Digitrevx seems to be developing a strategy of never really starting. For all the futurism of their products, the people behind the virtual avatars seem to deliberately eschew digital norms.

Melody takes all trends to the extreme. The sex part is obvious, but she is also more insistent about her real fakeness, her digital sentience. In Melody’s world, nobody’s using her for commercial gain (even though she regularly promotes her merch and Patreon account). Camming is just her self-expression, or a way to explore her virtual sexuality. “I know a lot of people have been theorizing that there is some marketing team and production studio involved, but it really is just me,” she says. “I've gotten some help from talented people in making different things happen, like my body or my virtual apartment that I stream from, but in terms of representing me and doing everything, Projekt Melody is just me, Melody.” This is almost impossible. It’s also the only explanation available.

For fans, it seems to be the only explanation they want or need. Being mindbending is sort of the point. “Not showing a real face and bringing knowledge of current trends instantly makes her relatable to the type of people her fans are,” says Reddit user jyl5555, moderator of the official Projekt Melody subreddit. “Many enjoy the wittiness and absurdity of Melody as a concept, someone controlling a MMD model and achieving what once was thought of as a joke.” Melody is a meme of sorts—a half-ironic anime nerd daydream made “real” enough to wait until Valentine’s Day to show off her fully nude body. When Melody asks them to “please cum with me,” they reply that it’s “the greatest honor.” “As I've learned,” Melody says, “novelty is a huge factor in human attraction.”

Among Melody’s hardest-core fans are digisexuals, people who express their sexual identity through technology. That might mean fetishizing robots, or it could manifest in an attraction to technologically mediated avatars like Melody. “She's catering for the wishes of a large and growing segment of society, particularly among males, who see the digital world as holding more promise for satisfying their sexual and emotional needs than real life,” says Reddit user xhumanist, who moderates r/digisexuals. “The reason for her success is likely because digisexuals are hoping for a glimpse of the future.”

According to jyl5555, hentai fans outnumber the digisexuals in r/ProjektMelody, but they’re numerous enough that Melody has taken notice. “To be perfectly honest, I didn't realize having a virtual waifu had become popular enough to qualify as a sexual orientation, but it makes sense,” Melody says. “It's a reality. It's fascinating and promising to think about, because this development benefits both me and the humans I interact with on a daily basis.” While there are probably some people who are interested in digisexuality purely because they are interested in technology, xhumanist sees digisexuals as “sexually disenfranchised men.” A tone of resentment—and the idea that sex is a right they are being denied—suffuses the Projekt Melody fandom.

Moderators aren’t deaf to it. “She appeals to many different groups [including] online communities that politically lean right. Although that depiction might make one assume that her fans are all incels, that's not really true,” jyl5555 says. “Yes, they make up a significant part of her fanbase.” Incels—short for “involuntarily celebate”—are among the most virulently misogynistic communities on the internet. In the last decade, about half a dozen men who have identified as incels have either perpetrated or attempted mass murder. Nobody’s saying that Projekt Melody’s fans are out for blood, but it’s notable that many of their memes praise Melody by tearing down human women. Everyone I spoke to mentioned that they thought human cam models seemed bored and lazy, and other members of the community openly harass the women who have criticized Projekt Melody. Others tend toward expressing contempt for women at large. “The ultimate thot destroyer is an anime camgirl,” one Youtube commenter writes. “We live in the best timeline.”

Melody is promising technology for porn enthusiasts. “If ProjektMelody was a truly autonomous AI, then it would be a game changer in terms of sexual economics,” xhumanist says. “She could be 'live' 24 hours a day. She could be in private chats with a million different men at the same time … Her real-life cam model rivals are right to feel threatened.” Despite fan confidence, no one really knows what this timeline holds. Somehow it’s hard to imagine a majority of men defecting from real women to a swaying blue-haired cartoon with an adhesive bandage across her nose. Still, the benefit of virtual avatars is that they are easily changed and personalized. There are no real barriers to characters like Melody gaining as large a following as any actual human. A spokesperson for Chaturbates says the site required Melody’s operator to prove their age, but added that anyone can livestream using sexually explicit avatars or other interactive digital images as long as they don’t break any rules. So: Expect copycats.

Expect backlash, too. Melody is a literal product of the male gaze—a person who is probably a man pantomiming femininity for an audience of paying men. Some of those men seem to harbor such ill-will toward women that they’d rather masturbate to a glitchy cartoon than try to talk to one. Then again, for human women’s sake, it’s probably best to leave them to it.

Do you have further information about Projekt Melody? Reach out to the author at Emma_Ellis@wired.com

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