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.
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.
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!