!!Spoiler Warning!! Contains some spoilers for those who are not up to date with the American release of Bleach.
Does having a fairly strong female character automatically equal a character freed of sexist bondage (aka harmful stereotyping)? That was the question I started to delve into the other week when I decided to look into Tite Kubo’s ever popular manga Bleach. Obviously, while some fans seem to skim over the fact that a majority of Kubo’s female character’s are slinging around (most times very openly) breasts the size of an adult human head, but when the strengths of the character are eclipsed by mammoth-sized physical attributes, how inventive is that character really?
Disregarding the physical appearance of Kubo’s female characters (not all of which have bursting bosoms), the ladies of Bleach leave much to be desired in the matter of strength.
Take Bleach’s two main heroines. Rukia, the tough, almost mentor-like character turned trusted companion, and Orihime, the cute, naive, and at times (especially at the beginning) airhead with a compassionate and surprisingly resilient nature. Rukia has more of a natural Japanese look (short, smaller chest, and black hair) while Orihime could perhaps be called the manga dream girl (long orange hair and a very large chest). These girls are very different from each other yet, somehow, both girls play damsels in distress at some point.
It doesn’t take long to get the ball rolling. In the first chapter of the manga, when Rukia, a sort of grim reaper (or shinigami in Japanese), tries to protect the protagonist, Ichigo (male) from a monster, she ends up wounded. In a last-ditch effort to save them both, Rukia attempts to give Ichigo some of her powers and accidentally is stripped of almost all her powers while Ichigo gains incredible strength. As a result, Rukia must mentor Ichigo to do her job until she regains her power.
While she is put in a position of authority in a way, it leaves Rukia on the side lines and in danger at more than one time where she must depend upon Ichigo or one of the other male heroes to get them all out of peril. So, while Rukia is no push over (especially when she finally regains her power), she remains, throughout the story thus far, dependent on men to pull her through hard times. Admittedly, Ichigo and other male characters do fall into serious trouble and others must come to their rescue, but they also get more glory moments to show that they’re not helpless.
On the other hand, Orhime begins in a more passive, helpless role and gains power later (although not enough to escape the damsel role). She starts off as the spacey classmate of Ichigo’s who Rukia and Ichigo notice is being hunted by an evil spirit. After some fighting and drama, Ichigo manages to save the damsel Orihime. Through this event however, it is revealed that Orihime has been living on her own and taking care of herself for years now after the death of her guardian, making her less helpless than it seemed. Later, Orihime is even given a very incredible and mysterious power that can be used offensively, defensively, and for healing. Be that as it may, this power is almost always used for the latter or defense and when actually used offensively, doesn’t usually work very well.
Then comes the most horrid part for these heroines. In two separate story arcs, Rukia and then Orihime are placed in blatant damsel in distress roles. Rukia is stuck in this role for 14 volumes of the manga and, thus far in the volumes released to America, Orihime has been stuck for 9! In the meantime, whichever girl is not stranded in the sorry work of being a damsel is able to demonstrate some of her abilities as she tries to assist in rescuing the other. Sadly, in many cases, even the active heroine ends up needing aid.
Does that mean that Rukia and Orihime are completely helpless? No. There are glorious moments within the manga when these strong girls get to show their stuff, moments that really shine. Tite Kubo didn’t make any complete Cinderallas or Sleeping Beautys after all. Unfortunately, what he has done is hold back his great female characters and does not show off their true glory often enough.
This doesn’t mean that Tite Kubo is consciously sexist. It could certainly be that Kubo has simply picked up and left unquestioned the roles and setbacks we give female characters nowadays. It could also be that he is just playing along with the stereotypical scenarios associated with this genre of manga. Even in this modern world where we have come so far, we all still need to be aware of underlining stereotypes.