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Archive for May, 2012

When I’ve discussed female characters from shonen manga in the past, I’ve almost always been critical of them. From well-known shonen (or boys’) manga like Bleach and Naruto, there are large casts of female characters, but unfortunately, I feel that many fall victim to stereotypes. Whether they’re made to stand on the sidelines, play the damsel in distress, or the sexy/cute girl with boobs that could make Barbie jealous, I often wish the female characters in such manga could have a stronger role in the story. But despite all my complaining, not all shonen manga lets the male characters steal the spotlight. Enter Fullmetal Alchemist.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a popular shonen manga created by Hiromu Arakawa. The story centers around Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers and alchemists who committed an alchemy taboo, resulting in Ed losing a leg and an arm and his brother losing his entire body, reduced to only a soul inhabiting an unfeeling suit of armor. Now Ed has become an alchemist who works for the military and the two are searching for a way to get their bodies back. While the story’s protagonists may be completely male, the large supporting cast is brimming with female characters who not only are strong, realistic, and interesting, but who shine just as bright as their equally strong, realistic, and interesting male cast members. So, let me introduce you to some of the women of Fullmetal Alchemist.

Winry Rockbell

As the childhood friend of the protagonists, Winry plays a role similar to Naruto‘s Sakura and Bleach‘s Orihime. One could call her the female lead of the story. Like so many females leads from the shonen manga, Winry does spend a fair amount of time waiting and worrying about the male protagonist(s). She also plays a support role to their get-out-there-and-kick-butt role. However, I feel she differs from many shonen manga girls in slight yet intriguing ways. For example, while she is in a position of support, rather than go to the old stereotype of making women healers, Arakawa made Winry a mechanic who creates items that are essentially mechanical prosthetics. Thus, Winry has a role similar to those healers like Sakura with the male protagonist(s) dependent on her skill (since Ed uses those prosthetics), but through the job of mechanic, something usually associated with men. It’s refreshing to see the girl drooling over mechanical parts rather than guys, even when romance enters the story. And while Winry isn’t a fighter in the sense that she doesn’t tote a gun, she’s tough and never feels like a damsel in distress, even when she finds herself in some tight spots.

Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye

Looking for a female character who takes a more hands-on role? Say hello to Riza Hawkeye. This military woman made a name for herself in a war and now works as the right-hand man (so to speak) of her friend, Roy Mustang, who plans to be the leader of their country someday. Hawkeye may not be looking for a high position of power herself, but she plays a critical role for Mustang. She watches his back and, if Mustang ever starts straying from the path, Hawkeye is there to put him back on track or stop him. The trust between these two is great and I really liked their relationship; one could suspect romance, but it’s never made clear. Instead, it focuses more on the absolute trust the two put in each and how they both help each other. Hawkeye proves herself worthy of the trust placed on her many times throughout the series. While she finds herself in need of help on a few occasions, once again Arakawa never makes her female character feel like a damsel in distress, and Hawkeye helps her male comrades out just as much as they help her.

Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong 

There are women just as ambitious as Mustang in the series though. Major General Armstrong is a force to be reckoned with. This woman is the tough-as-nails military commander of a fortress in the cold north that is constantly on the lookout for threats of invasion from bordering countries. Armstrong is a no-nonsense kind of person who runs a tight group of soldiers with a survival of the fittest approach to work yet has absolute loyalty, trust, and respect from them. She can take swift and calm action in tough situations, handles a sword expertly, and can play political games as well. Like Mustang, Armstrong has her eyes on leading the country one day. Despite being a relatively young woman, her story contains no romance. Romance is fun, but I appreciate that Armstrong’s story has nothing to do with it since it seems female characters often have plots heavily connected to romantic love.

I should clarify that, while she is extremely tough, Armstrong is not a heartless robot like some other “strong” modern female characters from fiction. Armstrong shows human emotion and feels like a fleshed-out human being, an aspect that I think is important. In fact, one of the things that I really liked about this series in general is the fleshed-out and human feel of the military. All the characters are portrayed realistically instead of in black-and-white and the military is shown to be made up of human beings, not unfeeling robots. For example, many of the military characters we meet are shown to be haunted by their memories of the war and what they had to do. So, my point is that Armstrong feels human just like the rest.

Izumi Curtis

Last but not least is Izumi Curtis. If she were to introduce herself, she’d tell you she’s just a housewife, but I’m going to go into a little more detail than that. This woman is an alchemist and the one who taught Ed and Al their skills. In just about every other shonen manga I’ve read, the male protagonist’s teacher has been male so, it’s great to see female characters being teachers to male characters. It seems there’s this trend that men teach men, women teach women, men fight men, and women fight women so, as always, I like to see trends broken.

Anyway, in addition to breaking stereotypes like the other women of Fullmetal, Izumi has a very touching background story dealing with difficulties having children. I have to say that I have never seen this brought up in manga and I certainly wouldn’t have expected it in a boys’ manga. Izumi also is shown to have a loving and equal relationship with her husband, something that’s always nice to see.

Finally, while it’s very comical to have this woman performing stunts that make even Olivier Armstrong’s jaw drop while humbly announcing herself as simply being a housewife, I love that Arakawa made Izumi a housewife. It seems to say, “Don’t underestimate the power of housewives.”

 That’s it for this post! If you haven’t given Fullmetal a shot yet, I hope this introduction to some of its awesome characters will motivate you to pick it up. There are many other great female characters in the series such as the female bodyguard, Lan Fan, and many more. And for the fans of the series wondering why I haven’t mentioned May Chang, I’ll be talking about her soon enough in my Destroying the Princess Stereotype series. Look for it soon!

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Versatile Blogger Award

Wow! This is really late, but I’m finally getting around to the Versatile Blogger Award. Thank you so much to kitsune and neko and starsamaria for nominating Gagging on Sexism! When I started this blog, I couldn’t make up my mind and go with just one subject, but I guess my indecision worked out well. I’ve been having a great time writing about various fiction from my feminist standpoint and I really appreciate getting nominated by other great bloggers.

The Rules:

  1. Thank the award giver and link back to their blog in your post.
  2. Share 7 things about yourself.
  3. Pass this award along to 15 blogs.
  4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award.

Here’s 7 things about me that you may or may not think are interesting:

1.   I don’t think I ever felt like my age. I often joke that I have the brain of someone much older than myself (although I’ve still got a lot to learn!). I also always wonder about the age of other bloggers and the people who read this blog.

2. I consider myself to be on the shy side and I’m definitely an introvert.

3. I am a total perfectionist. I don’t push my impossible standards on others, but I certainly hold myself to them. Typically, it drives me crazy, but I feel that there are some benefits.

4. I love cats! I like dogs, too, but I’ve always loved cats as far back as I can remember. As a kid, I’d draw cats, my imaginary games were about cats, and I’d read about cats. I’d be okay being the neighborhood cat lady.

5. I’m trying to learn Japanese. I’ve been studying it for about two years now, but I only know the basics (if you’re familiar with the Genki series, I’ve completed that). It’s such a fun language and I’m looking forward to learning more!

6. Despite my complaints about a lot of romance in fiction, I realized that I read plenty of it. Most of the manga I own is shojo (a.k.a. girls’ manga which always has some romance) and I read some fiction about romances as well. I don’t pick stories up based on the genre though; I just want a good story with interesting characters (and strong female characters).

7. I think many people probably peg me as very traditional when they meet me because of some of my mannerisms and other things like I’m one of those strange people who likes to cook. I’d say I have a few traditional aspects. I’m no outspoken tomboy, but I’m not a girly-girl or very traditional, either.

And finally, here are the blogs I’m nominating:

Contemporary Japanese Literature

Feminist Fiction

Gaming As Women

Manga Therapy

Pixels and Panels

Shojo Corner

simpleek

The Untold Stories of Altair and Vega

I know, it’s not 15 blogs, but hey. Instead, I’ll tell you one more thing about myself: I don’t read enough blogs!

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As soon as I saw the title on this book, I had to read it. While I don’t consider a character strong just based on their physical strength, with a name like that, I had a feeling I was in for an adventure about a tough female character. The question was, would she make more than a statement about how she can swing a sword?

“A Sword In Her Hand” starts off in 1347 with the Count of Flanders on pins and needles as his wife is giving birth to a child he hopes above all else will be the son and heir he’s been praying for. It’s a girl. Say hello to the protagonist of the story, Marguerite van Male! Readers watch as Marguerite grows from a small child looking for the love of a father too bitter over the loss a male heir to give her that, to as the book says, a “headstrong, sharp-tongued, sword-wielding” young woman searching for freedom in a male-dominated world. Her father may have wanted a strong-willed boy, but girls with such attitudes just won’t do. Marguerite will not be as her father might wish her to be; she’s watched her father pine over a male heir and her mother waste away, having been only a tool to produce an heir. She does not want to end up like that. Soon, Marguerite won’t just be fighting her father, she’ll be confronted with the pressure of politics as well when a marriage to a foreign prince is arranged for her.

Going into this book, I had no idea what it was about, including the fact that this reasonably short novel is roughly based on a real historical figure of whom little information is known. I’ll admit, I imagined war and frequent sword fights. While there is a war and some sword fights, the story was actually different from what I’d initially thought it would be like. Instead of a keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat action novel, it’s much more a story about Marguerite’s journey as a character and dealing with her life as a strong-willed girl in the Middle Ages. Don’t get me wrong, there is action; from the secondhand account of a war to Marguerite’s adventurous activities. And for those of you out there itching for a sword fight, there’s a great one at the end. However, despite there not being a lot of action in the form of wars and the like, there is plenty of tension and gripping moments that had me flipping through pages furiously to see what would happen next. This is especially true for when the arranged marriage plot line comes into play. Marguerite is constantly fighting a world that would have her be docile and there are wonderfully satisfying scenes in which she openly refuses to keep quiet and play along. This is a female character who is recognized for her vivacious personality and strength of character rather than her looks (which, according to history, weren’t considered beautiful). As Marguerite grew and her challenges in life became harder, I grew to like her more, feeling frustrated with her and cheering her on when she takes a stand.

While this book may not rank as a keeper for me, it was certainly enjoyable. If your heart is set on a sword fight in every chapter, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a Young Adult novel about the struggle of a young woman fighting against the control of the men in her life and her society, “A Sword In Her Hand” will provide you with a well-paced and satisfying story.

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I’ll be the first to admit, I give Disney a lot of flack. Disney has a reputation for their princess characters. Princesses make up the majority of their main characters in animated movies directed toward girls, but unfortunately, the princess characters and their movies are full of gender stereotypes, rather harmful messages about relationships, and what a girl’s goal in life should be. But out of all those meek heroines, there is one whom I find to be an inspiring heroine; Mulan. While Disney does consider Mulan a princess (based on their formula (human) Disney main character + female gender = princess), I refuse to pigeonhole her character like that and thus, she will not be in my series “Destroying the Princess Stereotype.” However, I do want to talk about Mulan and her movie. Awhile ago, I made it very clear why I hate Mulan II (or as I call it, the-movie-that-must-not-be-named), but recently, I realized I had yet to write a post on why I like Mulan. So, without further ado, let me tell you why I believe Mulan is the best Disney movie about a female character to date.
  • Mulan avoids major female character stereotypes
For starters, I feel Mulan breaks some stereotypes connected to Disney’s female leads. Take, for instance, the fact that Mulan is one of the few Disney movies about a girl who is not a princess. As regular readers know, I believe princess characters can be very interesting, but if all of Disney’s movies about young women are stories about princesses, it’s limiting. It seems to say that Disney doesn’t think girls would be interested in anything except tales of princesses. In contrast, Mulan is a young woman who becomes a soldier and then the hero of China. That’s fresh and new for Disney and breaks the trend. And luckily, Mulan doesn’t feel like a caricature of any other personality type. In addition, while many of Disney’s earliest princess characters are the “perfect female” (a.k.a. subservient and pretty), Mulan struggles with that. She isn’t the subservient, cookie-cutter beauty who exists only to please others. Sure, she initially thinks she needs to conform to society for her family, but I think many people can understand this. It’s hard to go against what everyone else is doing and I like that her struggle with that is depicted.  

Another thing I like about her character is her strength of will. While uncertain of herself, she ends up going to war disguised as a man for her father’s sake despite the risk of being killed in battle or if her true gender is discovered. Her strength grows, enabling her to take bold actions even after her identity has been revealed and she’s been abandoned by her comrades. I would also point out that Mulan’s intelligence is highlighted as a valuable trait throughout the movie; her clever ideas and quick thinking saves her and others on more than one occasion. It’s always great to see a girl’s intelligence showcased as an asset.

  • Mulan’s story breaks stereotypes
Mulan’s story also breaks numerous stereotypes associated with Disney movies that revolve around young women. First, unlike almost all other Disney stories about a female character, Mulan completely avoids the old plot of the young, innocent girl versus the conniving, evil, older woman. Even outside of Disney, I see so many stories where women are pitted against women so, strange as this sounds, it’s nice to see a girl (Mulan) whose main foe is a guy (Shan Yu). And don’t even get me started on my problems with the evil older woman stereotype.
 
The next big stereotype avoided is that Mulan’s story does not revolve around a romance. Most of Disney’s stories about girls involve a huge romance which becomes the main plot. Mulan actually does the opposite, making romance such a small portion of Mulan’s journey that it’s only hinted at. Instead, Mulan’s story is about her finding herself, her love for her family, and trying to save China. Mulan fulfills herself by finding acceptance with who she is, not by finding a guy. Compared to the sea of Disney movies (and frankly, a lot of fiction) about young women whose stories seem to revolve almost entirely around romance, Mulan is like a breath of fresh air. I would also argue that by finding herself, Mulan is rewarded with the bonus of meeting a guy who ended up liking her for who she is, untraditional aspects and all. And because Mulan is able to take care of herself, her relationship with the guy she likes seems much more equal than traditional Disney stories where the man always has to rescue the woman.

Mulan is about a girl finding acceptance with who she is even when society tells her she should act another way. Granted, her story comes to a fairy tale-like ending in which she not only achieves the confidence to be herself without fear, but also receives acceptance and praise from all of China. However, this gives the message that good will come from being honest with who you are, even if the road is challenging. Does this story do everything right? Probably not, but in a world single-mindedly telling girls to be princesses, Mulan tells them to be whoever they are. There are lots of other things I liked about this movie such as how the girl saves the day instead of the guy and how she has non-romantic relationships with men, but I won’t get into those today. For breaking trends and setting a new goal for girls, I consider Mulan the best of Disney’s movies focused on a young woman to date.

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