[Editorial Tuesday] The Emergence of Strong Female Characters

One of the good things about anime is its ability to reflect the current cultural landscape of the world and, more specifically, Japan. Whether it's the postwar trauma as shown in Tetsujin-28, the fear of the misuse of technology in Astro Boy, or the environmentalist message found in Studio Ghibli's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, anime has always done a good job of taking a look at the contemporary issues facing Japan and the world.

Other than simply providing a glimpse into the cultural and political aspect of the times, by tracing trends in anime through time, it's also possible to gain an understanding of the country's common values as well. Everything from family to political values can be assessed by watching anime. Japan's currently dealing with an increased call for equality for female members of its populous.

Currently, like in other advanced countries, there's an attempt to provide equal rights for and increase the amount of women in the workforce. Not only are they looking for an increased presence, but also more options than being a housewife or part time worker. Outside of the workplace, Japanese women are also even looking for the right to keep their maiden name after marriage.

The increase of women looking for equality isn't a new phenomenon: it's a representation and culmination of the many years of progress being made towards women's equality. Progress led by many strong women in Japan's history. By looking at the growth in the prominence in strong women in anime, it's possible to observe the growing value of strong women in Japan.

The Fear of Strong Women

Much like much of modern Japan's history, women's role in anime was relegated to background roles. But even then, there was still a prominence of strong women, even if they did have a minor role. Take for example, 1986's hit anime, Dragon Ball. Dragon Ball had a perfect representation of the view of a strong woman at the time with Launch. Launch had a personality disorder in which every time she sneezes her personality changes. Her two personalities switch between a sweet, innocent one and an aggressive machine gun touting one.

Naturally, it is this stronger and more independent form that strikes fear in Goku and the others. Of course, Dragon Ball isn't the only example of this. Many anime with strong female leads painted them in a fairly negative light. Their strength was not seen as a desirable trait, instead, something that made them undesirable and unladylike.

Even some more modern shows fall to this trap, painting the strong women as some kind of monster. In the Blood: The Last Vampire, the main character Saya is an immortal vampire. The days of the scary, strong woman is slowly becoming a thing of the past, leaving room for women who are strong, simply due to their own merits.

The Strong Women of Shounen

Shounen anime, known for their vast assortments of character designs and personalities, are also known for something else: the large number of strong male leads. Although it is very true that the Shounen genre does feature primarily strong men, it is unfair to say that they are devoid of strong female leads. Many of these feature strong female characters in secondary roles. Rukia from Bleach, Tsunade and Sakura from Naruto, Mikasa from Attack on Titan, and Bulma and Android 18 from Dragon Ball Z are all strong female characters from their respective shows.

It is true that at many times, the shows do not focus on these characters primarily and they are often left in the shadow of the show's male lead. Even then they almost never play the role of the 'damsel in distress'. They are almost always able to take care of themselves, and even if they need the support of the main male lead, there also times when they too provide the male hero with support.

The secondary role among many of these female character has become so common that they are able to have their own story arcs that are not simply fodder. The importance of this rise in female secondary characters is important, especially when considering that the shounen genre is one aimed primarily at young boys. Even with this target, there has been an increase in successful shounen that has girls and women in the starring role.

The Ghibli Formula

Game of Thrones author, George R.R. Martin, when asked about his representation of women in his books replied that he created interesting women because he "always considered women to be people". Though perhaps, not for the same reason, it is important to look at and understand the role of women in Miyazaki's Ghibli films.

From Castle in the Sky to When Marnie Was There, Ghibli films are driven by predominantly strong female leads. Something that makes Ghibli's female characters important is how they are represented. They are all strong independent women, but they also have their flaws. While it can be said that the strong women of Ghibli's film are often saved and helped by the men of their respective film, the fact that these men also have their own flaws and are also saved by the heroine cannot be ignored.

Ghibli films do a good job of creating realistic characters, both male, and female. With the prominence of strong female characters, it can be argued that Ghibli is establishing women as the driving force behind Japan.

Modern Representation of Strong Women

Ghibli films are perhaps, the most progressive representation of women in modern anime. Strong women are being portrayed more and more these days, many times alongside a male lead, and even more prominently now, without one.

Modern shows like Michiko to Hatchin, Kill la Kill, Dirty Pair, and Flip Flappers, to name a few, all feature strong female leads, that prove themselves capable of standing up on their own. These shows all feature leading females that are strong on their own. In each one, our female lead also shows little to no reliance on the show's male characters.

One flaw regarding the strengths of a few of these women, however, is their driving motivation. For Ryuuko in Kill la Kill, it is the death of her father. In Michiko to Hatchin, it's the pursuit of Michiko's lover and Hachiko's father that spurs their adventure.

Still, despite their motivations, these women are strong and independent in their own right. Kill la Kill's major conflict for the majority of the show is between its two female leads.who are strong in their own way. Michiko from Michiko to Hatchin proves her strength in many different ways: physically, mentally, and even emotionally.

Different Strengths of Women

Another thing to consider when looking at the rise of strong women is the different strengths and ways to be strong that women possess. Even in the early day of anime, and in some modern ones, women despite possessing minor roles show themselves to be strong in ways other than the typical physical strength.

Many women in Shounen, comedy and even slice of life anime possess a type of emotional strength that the male leads were incapable of possessing. Though constantly cast in roles of support, theses women were able to support the main lead and be strong for themselves in ways that the male characters were unable of.

Take the character of Fio Vanetti from 91 Days, for example. Although reflective of the times in which the series takes place, Fio was married into the Galassia family to help with the family relations. Later in the show, due to her role as a woman, and the expectations that came along with she was able to play a vital role for the Vanetti's.

Fio was able to this by playing into her expected role as a weak female, and take advantage of the situation to achieve her goals. In many ways, female characters are able to use their perceived weakness as a woman and outsmart their opponent to gain an advantage situationally or physically.

"But Lots of Strong Women are Defined by Their Sexiness"

Ryuuko from Kill la Kill, Michiko from Michiko to Hatchin, Yoko from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and Revy from Black Lagoon are all strong women from their anime, but something that many people might use as a counter to their strengths is they are inherently sexy: they are defined by their sexiness. The simple response to that is "So what?"

A woman being sexy and a woman being strong are not mutually exclusive ideas. A character can be sexy without being strong, strong without being sexy, and both. A character being sexy in no way takes away from their strengths. Even in these situations, many times the characters are able to use their sex appeal to their own advantage, proving that their sexiness in some ways adds to the strength, instead of taking away from it. But because the stereotypical female character of old was either overwhelmingly sexy without being strong, or strong without being overwhelmingly sexy, it is still hard for viewers to see these two traits work in conjunction with one another.

The Military Woman

In several instances, anime has also portrayed women in significant positions of power militarily. A few clear examples are Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Psycho-Pass, and Attack on Titan. All of these anime are perfect examples of anime with strong military-type women. Although Japan does not have its own formal military, instead relying on the Japan Self-Defense Forces to protect the country when called upon, it does understand the effect, role and strength of the military.

Ghost in the Shell, and Armitage III all show that even as far back as the mid 90's that there were those in Japan willing to accept women in positions of power, even if that sentiment wasn't expressed or agreed upon publicly. Still even today, there are few women in powers of position in Japan's workplace, and even less in the military, Like many important issues, they can be tackled or accepted in the fictional realm, but still remain taboo or unaccepted in the real world.

The Future of Strong Women in Anime

Just like in the real world, there's still a bit of progress to be made in regards to women gaining equal footing compared to their male counterparts. Still, they've made it a long way. In order for this to happen, the first important thing that needs to happen, of course, is for the strong woman to become just as accepted as the other roles that women are known to portray.

The strong woman is becoming not only more and more accepted, but also more common as time goes on. This important because of the power of representation. As more and more young girls see themselves in positions of power, the more they seek to escape the typical roles that are applied to women. And even for those that desire these roles, there exist examples of strong women in those roles, as well. It remains important that the presence of strong female characters continue to grow as time goes on.


Final Thoughts

When people say there aren't enough strong women in anime, it feels as if they are still stuck in the past when making this statement. It is true that strong women were not prominent in earlier anime, especially anime geared towards a male audience. Times are changing, however, as there are more and more female characters that are able to stand on their own. Again, this is important not only for its place in the growth of anime as a medium but also as a reflection of the cultural landscape in Japan.

Perhaps Ghibli, and more specifically Miyazaki, is the perfect place to look when making strong women characters. Ghibli characters don't fall into the trap of being defined by their strength, or even by their womanhood, as many heroes and heroines are respectively. Instead, he creates interesting characters with depth that goes beyond their gender. Other anime are also creating these interesting characters that defy stereotypes and tropes assigned to their gender.

What's your opinion on strong women in anime? Do you think that female characters have successfully found a way to be strong on their own or do they (more specifically the creators of anime) still have a long way to go? Let us know in the comments below!

Jabulani Blyden

Writer

Author: Jabulani Blyden

This feels like I'm writing a dating profile... Am I pretty enough? In addition to watching anime I like playing video games, mostly RPGs and indies. I lose a lot of Otaku street cred for the games and shows on my backlog (TTGL & FFVII for example #FeelsBadMan). I run a podcast with my friends where we talk about video games and anime. Nice to meet you... or something.

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