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!!Series finale spoilers ahead!!

If you haven’t already heard, The Legend of Korra ended this past Friday, bringing an end to the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel and generating a wave of chatter online. After four seasons and 52 episodes, the series hasn’t always hit the right notes. One of the elements of The Legend of Korra that I had voiced concerns about in the past is the show’s handling of romances. The series’ first two seasons fell into many of the deadly traps of fictional romances, from convoluted love triangle drama to drawing comedy from a certain male character’s suffering in a relationship with a controlling woman. But how the series ultimately ties up its relationships leaves plenty to discuss.

In seasons three and four, we saw those aforementioned problematic relationships fizzle out, leaving most of Korra’s gang single. In their place, the show focused on the steady maturation of Korra and her friends, and the creation of bonds much stronger than the rather superficial romance-of-the-week of the previous two seasons. In a way, the most generic relationship drama–the infamous love triangle between Korra, Asami, and Mako–turned out to be the most innovative, namely because the romance drama got ditched.

By turning to a scenario in which neither girl ends up with Mako, creators Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino shed a restrictive, not to mention overused, element of storytelling that ends with someone winning the love interest’s heart and thus, winning happiness. Instead, Korra offers its viewers a revision that doesn’t disregard love, but simply adjusts our expectations of what kind of love really matters. Take Mako and Korra for example. They’re romance may have crashed and burned, but they become friends who have each other’s backs. This is their happy ending. They’ve moved passed their passionate adolescences to find more stable relationships that don’t necessarily register with the standard comedic ending. It’s not an unheard of conclusion for the lead male and female characters, but one that seems much more natural than their previous on-and-off romance. Bonds of friendship and family prove sturdier than anything in Korra. Even Baatar, Jr. discovers the love of his family to be stronger than his romance with this season’s antagonist, Kuvira!

Of course, we did get a good dose of classic comedic endings as well. You can’t get more classic than ending with a wedding, and that’s exactly what The Legend of Korra gave us as a conclusion for wacky genius duo Varrick and Zhu Li. Yet even more standard relationships like this one ended up putting a heavy emphasis on partnership above anything else. While Zhu Li had been colored as Varrick’s assistant in seasons two and three, the show made a notable effort to depict Zhu Li asserting her equality and Varrick beginning to recognize Zhu Li as a partner in both their professional and personal relationships in season four. While played for laughs, their marriage vows raise some doubt as to how much Varrick has actually changed how he expects his relationship with Zhu Li to work, but perhaps this brief moment is a good way of acknowledging that change doesn’t happen so easily.

My favorite change, however, is the relationship that bloomed between lead women Korra and Asami. Konietzko and DiMartino made a smart choice earlier in the series by making Asami and Korra friends despite their mutual love for Mako, avoiding much of the typical underhanded fighting between female rivals-in-love. This relationship reaches new heights in this last season, as the girls grow into women who depend on each other more than anyone else, supporting each other during the most turbulent periods.

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With a final shot of Korra and Asami holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes as they prepare to embark on a journey at the end, Korra creators have pushed the envelope one last time in the show. There’s a debate about whether this final shot sends a message of prevailing female friendship over romance or cements Korra and Asami’s relationship as more than friendship, but lovers. (UPDATE: Korra creators confirmed that they are, in fact, lovers. Thanks, Megh!) Whether you see them as just friends or as a couple, you have to admit that The Legend of Korra leaves its viewers with a wonderful break from standard stories. Not only do the leading women not have to end up with the guy to find happiness, but they each find their most important companion to be another woman. Their relationship is defined as a bond much stronger than a fairytale romance between a prince and a princess. It’s one of support, love, and partnership between women.

The Legend of Korra ends with a bang just as it began with one by sticking with its muscular, kick-butt heroine when doubt was expressed about the appeal of an action show with a female protagonist. Korra marks herself as a heroine never to be tied down by standard storytelling, leaving gender stereotypes and romance cliches far behind in this last season.

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When you see a female character with a large chest, what do you think? Is it simply an artistic rendition of a curvy female body type, or does it fall under the category of fan service, and seem to exist as sexual titillation for consumers of a certain sex and sexual orientation? Leaning toward the latter line of thought, feminist bloggers such as myself often point out those big-breasted women of manga, anime, and video games as problematic. Just in my last post, I again attempted to tackle the issue, using the popular shonen manga series Fairy Tail as that week’s example of the prevalent trend.

While many previous readers have voiced disagreement with the concept that something is wrong with the fan service I highlight, a recent reader got me thinking about the issue in a slightly different fashion: where do we draw the line between “pure” artistic rendition of the human body and bodies draw for the purpose of sexual fan service?

One of the many charms of fiction like manga and anime is the varied art styles, the way the artist chooses to visualize a world. Art styles range from highly cartoonish and deformed to relatively realistic, resulting in many ways to represent the human body. Just think of comparing the artwork in Hiroyuki Takei‘s Shaman King or Gainax‘s Panty and Stocking to that of Naoki Urasawa‘s Monster or Tsugumi Ohba’s and Takeshi Obata‘s Death Note. Clearly, these artists all have distinct ways of drawing the human body. Depending on the style, the body many be more or less exaggerated, and exaggerated in different fashions at that.

Here’s where we hit a snag. Artistic expression is something to enjoy, but all too often, a line is crossed in the fictional depictions of busty women that shifts attention away from the character and onto the character’s body. Instead of just being another character who happens to have a shapely body, the minds behind the fiction sexualize her, focusing on her breasts, her curves, or what-have-you. Her body becomes a tool intended to gratify the straight male consumer and the work encourages the reader/viewer to objectify her through those cleverly placed shots.

Nevertheless, there are ways of making the majority of one’s female characters curvy without giving the series a crazy injection of fan service. Compare the depiction of curvy female characters in works such as Fairy Tail to that of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. FMA is full of female characters with shapely bodies, from mechanic/childhood friend Winry to highly skilled military personnel such as Hawkeye and Major General Armstrong. Unlike other works, however, their (realistically) sizable busts are not the center of attention. Is it apparent that they’re shapely? Yes. Gone, however, are convenient shots of shiny breasts, bouncing boobs, or other gimmicks intended to draw the eye to their chest. Some female characters even wear clothing that could have been used as fan service in other series, like Winry’s tube top or Izumi Curtis’ cleavage, but the mangaka chose not to focus on. Perhaps Arakawa’s female villain Lust comes closest to fulfilling fan service, acting as this series’ sexy character, but even the fan service we see with Lust isn’t as pronounced as the fan service in many other series. The fan service in FMA is slight, allowing the consumer to appreciate each character as a whole. In other words, there is a way to depict shapely women without making them into sexpots, and demonstrates that those who do fulfill that role in manga or anime are drawn with the intent that they do so.

Of course, we have to recognize that fiction has a way of showing audiences ideal body types of both sexes. I tend to focus on the depiction of female body standards (large breasts and a tiny hourglass waist), but male characters have long appeared in superhero-type fashion, boasting six-packs and muscles in areas you didn’t even know it was possible to build up. One of my favorite examples is Gohan from DBZ, who ends up with a chiseled body long before he even hits puberty. Obviously, both sexes get to see unrealistic ideals reflected in fiction. Despite the fact that those six packs often represent strength and power while the sizable female chest serves to turn the female body into something pleasurable for a given demographic, such male representations still builds on traditional ideas of masculinity and unrealistic body ideals. There are also examplesthat put male characters in the sexualized spotlight.

Here’s where all those reading this post who are ready to defend fan service can relax a bit. I’ve laid out how I differentiate fan service bodies from shapely forms, I’ve touched on why I see fan service as problematic, and I’ve pointed out men suffer from this fan service, too. Nevertheless, I don’t think that this kind of fan service in and of itself is the biggest problem. There will always be fan service and, in limited doses, it’s not that big of a deal. The issue becomes the sheer volume of fan service.

There are many different body types in this world, and it’s a good thing to pull from and represent that variety. Art even has the power to expand on the vast variety we already have in this world. Unfortunately, instead of representing various body types, some fiction eliminate that variety in their efforts to provide fan service. Others reinforce stereotypes. Even when we see a female character who supposedly doesn’t have an ideal body (which often means she has small breasts), we aren’t encouraged to appreciate variety. Rather, our attention is thrown back to sex appeal and cultural ideals. It’s not unusual for female characters with small breasts to express dissatisfaction with their body and occasionally envy toward those who have the ideal body type. Although we may sympathize with that character’s feelings, at times, traditional ideals seem to be confirmed in these tiny melodramas: it’s presented as a given that girls should be dissatisfied with smaller chests. On the flip side, female characters with big chests are often doomed to fulfilling fan service, no matter what kind of personalities or skills they possess. Seeing this type of rendition repeatedly can feel limiting, which is a shame since art clearly has the potential to expand our perceptions of the world.

I’ll finish this post by stating that I don’t claim to hold all of the answers on this issue. There’s a bit of a gray area between artistic expression and all its exaggerated glory, and the realm of simple fan service. Viewpoints on fan service itself are largely varied as well. Much of it depends on the eye of the beholder, but I hope this clarifies my personal definition. With that thought, what do you think of this issue?

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Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

From just a glance at the popular shonen series, Fairy Tail, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this series is one of many that marginalize its female characters to the role of pin-up manga girls rather than, say, useful members of the team. You know, the ones that serve to satisfy the need for disproportionate busts on a slim body, topped with a face featuring big, doe-like eyes who are often featured in boob or panty shots. That was my first impression upon popping open the first volume of the series, which boasts its amply breasted female protagonist, Lucy Heartfilia, on the front. While it can’t be denied that Fairy Tail‘s female characters do suffer from something I like to call “power boobs,” the series boasts an array of female characters who actually are powerful, as opposed to the many faux action girls we see in shonen and other fiction. So, what are we supposed to make of this long-running action/adventure series?

Fairy Tail centers around a group of young wizards in a fantastical world of dragons and flying cats where people can join specialty guilds, including powerful guilds for wizards who take on job requests ranging from mundane to highly dangerous for money. Right away, Fairy Tail caught my interest by choosing to start the story following Lucy, a female wizard looking for one of the most well known (and slightly infamous) guilds around, Fairy Tail. Opening with a female character is a move that seems to be fairly rare in a sea of shonen series with male protagonists. Natsu, the boy Lucy meets while looking for Fairy Tail, is arguably the real protagonist of the series, evident from the fact that he is the one to fight the main villains and is often featured front and center on the cover, but the narrative usually sweeps back to her at the start of a new arc. As the rest of the guild is introduced, the series continues to impress when Erza, an armor-wearing, sword-wielding woman who takes command even in the presence of her male teammates and is one of the strongest members of the guild, enters the picture. And unlike some series, where only one or two female characters make frequent appearances, it quickly becomes clear that Fairy Tail is a world realistically populated with both sexes.

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Image from Barnes & Noble

Unfortunately, what also becomes clear is that out of the wide cast of female characters, ranging from villains to heroes, a couple have moderate to small chest sizes (one of those characters being a little girl) while the rest are drawn with very prominent breasts(1). Of course, it’s not just that practically all of the girls have large bust lines, but also the way the series cashes in on fanservice. Lucy is often featured in super-tight tank tops showing cleavage and even a little side boob, and even Erza uses magical armor that transforms into different sets, ranging from beautiful but impractical armor showing breast and skin to outfits that were clearly made as an excuse to show Titania wearing cat ears or in a sexy goth lolita look. Many of the other powerful female guild members are also highly sexualized in battle and out such as Mira, the wickedly strong demon girl turned wizard pin-up girl, which links back to the old power boobs trend. (Lucy aspires to be a featured pin-up girl in one of the wizard magazines like Mira one day, something she makes clear from the start of the series.) Frankly, whether the character wears more conservative outfits or not, the chest always seems to be accentuated. The female members of the guild also participate in beauty contests wearing swimsuits and cheer leading outfits, just to make sure your attention is where is should be. Despite the great power and skill of the women in the series, Fairy Tail falls into the trap of putting focus on the female characters’ bodies rather than their abilities.

The emphasis on the girls’ sexuality(2) continues in reoccurring jokes throughout the series, jokes that are usually at the cost of Lucy’s dignity. In volume 17, she’s humiliated twice, once when her short skirt falls down, revealing what readers can assume is her underwear since we see her skirt around her ankles and a few male characters gawking with hearts bulging out of their eyes, and a second time when an enemy transforms herself into Lucy and lifts her top to show off Lucy’s breasts. An ongoing joke is the perverted master of the guild, an old man with an adult grandson,who constantly hits on the girls in the guild. One of the most blatant and disturbing examples of this behavior comes when the guild master uses punishment as a thinly veiled excuse to repeatedly slap Lucy’s backside. It’s all supposed to be funny, but I find it especially troubling when a girl’s humiliation or sexual harassment are made into a sexually gratifying joke for readers. Fortunately, the latter type of fan service is not as prominent in the series as the former type, but the problems still remain. No matter which kind of fanservice it is, the overwhelming amount of it in manga (and in other forms of fiction) perpetuate ideas that men should look at women as breasts and butts or objects of sexual fantasy, a problem we certainly have here in the United States.

Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

Of course, not everything is about how the female characters look. This cast of female characters has had plenty of chances to fight on their own and to prove that they are, in fact, capable members of the team. In almost every arc that I’ve read so far (up to volume 18), the girls typically play a larger or less gendered role in fights than some of the heroines in other shonen series. Too often, female characters in other series get sidelined as healers or stuck fighting–and even losing to–nameless villains while their male counterparts defeat the top guys, if they do anything at all. In Fairy Tail, the girls tend to get their chance to show off their worth. Erza takes out, or at least weakened, some of the major enemies and even Lucy usually defeats a notable villain or two. Many of the female characters who aren’t lead ladies are pretty powerful in their own right as well.

Still, there are some problems on the battlefield, too. Despite Lucy’s power, she’s still one of the weakest, and often says so herself. In addition, some of her biggest battles in the series recently have featured her summoning a Celestial Spirit (magical beings she makes contracts with and who usually fight in her stead) who looks just like a young man. Yes, I know, Lucy has the power to summon strong beings, which isn’t something to sneeze at, but when she summons something that looks like he could be any other powerful guy, it seems like she’s calling for a knight to save her from danger rather than a magical being summoned by her own strength.

Another issues arises when comparing how the series puts its male characters in a pinch versus its female characters. Male characters such as Gray struggle with similar emotional and physical duress that their female counterparts do, in which they face despair and take extreme action that requires their teammates to go after them and talk some sense into them, only the female characters are kidnapped so far. Their capture forces the other members to go save them, putting the girls in temporary states of near-to-complete helplessness. The example that perhaps best sums up this phenomenon is during an arc involving the entire guild, when all of the main female members are held hostage in a plot to get the guild members to battle each other. The rest of the guild fight against their wishes to ensure that the girls aren’t harmed. To add insult to injury, the battle is designed to determine who is the strongest in the guild, yet the girls are completely discounted from the start (3).

Nevertheless, the girls don’t usually stay completely helpless for long. In the above scenario, the hostages aren’t rescued by one of the many guys fighting to save them, but rather Erza. In general, Erza is viewed as a huge threat by her enemies and gets some great heroic moments that rival those of any male teammate of the series’ protagonist. Similarly, despite the fact that it’s a minor mission, Lucy shows herself capable enough to go off by herself and take out a whole gang of criminals. In addition, as a commenter on one of my previous posts points out, there have been some women in influential positions such as those on the Magic Council, a group of powerful wizards with a lot of authority over the guilds and wizards of the world.

So, eighteen volumes in and Fairy Tail is a mixed bag for me as far as its female characters are concerned. It’s a fun, whimsical series, but it hasn’t risen above some classic shonen series, forcing readers to suffer a whole cast of big breasted, fanservice females who all seem to get their chance to be damsels in distress. It does, however, offer fans a number of female characters who are regularly shown to be capable in their own right. I’ll keep reading, and I’m planning on writing more about what the series does right in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts on the female characters of Fairy Tail?

  1. I know that in the past, some readers have argued that attacking the sexy way in which female manga/anime characters dress reminds them of slut slamming or that it seems like I am making fun of women with large breasts so, I will state my distinction now: if a creator of a fictional female character decides to present her in a hyper sexual fashion, complete with over-emphasized breasts, I must address how that person has chosen to depict women. Rather than thinking of these characters as women choosing to present themselves a certain way, compare it to how media such as Playboy make conscious choices in the clothing, positioning, and, in all likelihood, photoshopping of female models to make them appealing to male consumers. If a real woman has large breasts or makes the decision to dress in a revealing manner, that is a different matter.
  2. To be fair, Mashima, the creator of Fairy Tail, does include fan service for his female readers as well. Most evident is one of the lead male characters, Gray, who has a habit of stripping off his shirt or even down to his underwear at random yet frequent moments of the series. I appreciate that Mashima tries to even things out, and making men the object of fan service seems to be some people’s response to “equality,” but I’m not convinced that giving men the same treatment that women get is the right answer.
  3. It should be noted that Natsu is initially excluded as well, but he is not being held hostage.

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Image from Amazon.com

Despite shojo manga’s reputation for romance and shonen manga being known for endless battles, both categories place a heavy weight on relationships. Shojo manga heroines pine for seemingly impossible loves while shonen manga heroes fight against unlikely odds, building a group of trustworthy teammates in the process. But whether it’s shojo or shonen, these stories often share another commonality that may not be so wonderful: the relationships, characters, and interactions between them get tangled up in formulaic, gender-stereotyped patterns. Boys have to knock heads and throw punches before they understand each other (not to mention rescue their female fellows to demonstrate their masculinity) while guy-crazy girls enter a subtle game of war as they fight to reach the apparently unobtainable guy, caught up in getting the romance of their dreams. Such posturing does happen in real life, but fiction can exaggerate relationships according to gender stereotypes. Yet among all this hyped-up relationship drama, an understated shojo manga called Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to put aside gender stereotype-heavy plots to get at a simple yet powerful human truth–our struggles to build connections with and understand others.

Takashi Natsume, the protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends, knows more about loneliness than a young man his age should. His parents died when he was little, resulting in him being shuffled around from one unwelcoming relative to the next. To make matters worse, ever since he can remember, Natsume has been able to see things other people can’t–strange beings akin to spirits or demons called yokai who harass him wherever he goes. Unable to see what he does, his relatives and his peers found him creepy and considered him a liar, rejecting and isolating him. Natsume has never had a place he could call “home” or people who he felt he could confide in. Now a high school student, he still has to deal with his troublesome ability, but he thinks he’s finally found the place he belongs when he’s adopted by his distant relatives, the Fujiwaras. But his troubles with yokai increase after he finds a mysterious book called “The Book of Friends” left behind by his long deceased grandmother, Reiko. Snubbed by everyone around her because of her own ability to see yokai, Reiko took out her frustrations on the supernatural creatures, beating them in duels and then binding them to her will by collecting their names in that book. Now, with help of his new bodyguard, a yokai who looks like a ceramic cat, Natsume must deal with the yokai who pester and attack him for their names and powerful The Book of Friends.

When I first came across Natsume’s Book of Friends, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. On the surface, it may sound like many other manga before it, but while this series certainly has a good dose of dangerous encounters, it uses Natsume’s ability to see yokai to jump into issues such as isolation, trust, and the joys and difficulties of having connections with others. For much of the series so far, the story works on an episodic basis, without the immediate tensions and drama of most popular series. But I quickly got used to the pace, and fell in love with Natsume’s struggles to connect, protect, and wind his way through the complexities of relationships. And perhaps because the series attempts to tackle relationships on a more fundamental level, without the extra drama of idealistic romances or out-of-this-world battles to save humanity, it feels as if the puff of accentuated gender norms has been skimmed away, leaving organic interactions between the protagonist and those he encounters.

b10.01Natsume makes the perfect protagonist to tackle these relationship struggles. He’s been rejected so many times for being honest about what he sees that he’s closed himself off, putting on a mask of normalcy to avoid problems. Now that he’s living with the Fujiwaras, their kindness has warmed him up to connecting with the people around him, but building relationships has become foreign to him. He wants to connect to others, and wants to be honest about himself, but doesn’t know how, especially when he fears his ability will either put his friends and family in danger or cause them to reject him. Yet even as he sees yokai as a threat to his life with the Fujiwaras, Natsume’s kindness leaves him unable to walk away from yokai he becomes involved with, and he begins to see the pestering and sometimes dangerous beings in a different light. Finally, one of my favorite additions to this series is the exorcists, who complicate and challenge Natsume’s thinking, namely his growing desire to help both humans and yokai. His interactions with the exorcists teach him that although he has at last found people who share his ability to see yokai, that does not mean that they fully understand each other. All three of these groups force Natsume to confront new and often difficult questions about relationships with others, from how to balance his projected image of a normal teen with his often troubled reality, how much to let people in and how much to keep them away from his secrets and problems, to confusion about who to trust and what to say. And of course, how to understand others. Although some of these troubles may seem fantastical, taken out of the supernatural context, they are all problems that everyone faces and can relate to, male or female.

That’s not to say that Yuki Modorikawa has created a gender role-free paradise in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Gender roles still seep through, albeit in a more subtle manner than some other popular shojo and shonen series; Natsume is dubious of being carried away by a female character (even as that character saves him from a dangerous situation) until he distinguishes her as a female yokai rather than a woman; at numerous points, yokai tell Natsume to “man up” or call him a “wuss”; and Natsume’s foster parents reflect an ideal traditional household with a cheery stay-at-home mother and a father who works outside the home. They’re subtle, but if you look for them, gender roles are definitely present.

Even so, these gender norms do not feel imposed on the story as the proper way to act or live as a man or woman. In fact, the protagonist himself diverges in many ways from the typical path of male characters. Natsume isn’t bolstered as a masculine superhero who saves cute damsels in his spare time nor are the girls around him flocking like maniacs to score prince charming. The series has ample chances to make Natsume into a prince charming figure, since he does assist female yokai and girls several times throughout the stories and it’s been noted in the story that Natsume is handsome, but these details never push their way to the front. Even when Natsume is repeatedly mistaken for a female relative or told to be more of a man, he does not try to reassert his manliness by exaggerating stereotypical male qualities. He is concerned with protecting those around him, a trait often seen in both shojo and shonen heroes, but Natsume’s protectiveness feels natural, the kind of protectiveness we all feel toward people we care about, no matter our gender. Notably, he doesn’t feel more protective of his female relations and acquaintances than the male ones. He wants to keep them all safe to the best of his abilities. Natsume isn’t made out to be the complete opposite of what’s considered to be masculine like Asuka from Otomen, but he’s a wonderful example of a well-rounded male character shown to have a healthy range of emotions, and a gentleness and vulnerability mixed with perseverance that sets him apart from both male and female ideals of the perfect man.

cnatsume_yuujinchou_v05_ch16_p004_transcendence_ashitakaxtaiyouIf anything, Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, could be said to possess more stereotypical qualities of a male manga protagonist. She is long dead by the start of the series, but her legacy of taking her frustrations and loneliness out on yokai is reminiscent of many bad boy or delinquent types such as Naruto (Naruto) or Kyo (Fruits Basket), (although this behavior is seen in female characters as well). When yokai speak of the prowess of Natsume, they usually aren’t referring to the protagonist, but rather Reiko. While his grandmother dealt with her loneliness through force and violence, Natsume takes a more peaceful approach. Although his supernatural powers are strong, he’s not particularly strong physically. Instead, his true strength lies in his growing kindness and desire to protect the things he has come to care about, a double-edged sword that both makes him more susceptible to attacks and gains him loyal and powerful friends. I appreciate that these two different types of strength (physical strength and kindness) that are stereotypically applied to one gender more than the other have been switched around in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Midorikawa discusses that she considered making Natsume a girl, but I’m glad to see a nice male protagonist who neither reeks of someone’s idealized but boring prince nor has to be the super strong man to sort things out. Having a character like Natsume takes the focus away from questions of masculinity and gender norms in favor of explorations of relationships that are less gendered than we often see in fiction.

So, if you’re tired of series that lay the gender roles on thick and want one that explores the struggles and joys of relationships in a sophisticated, bittersweet manner, I recommend giving Natsume’s Book of Friends a go. A quick note before you do! For those of you who aren’t fans of episodic stories, don’t pass this series up just yet. Although the series does start solely episodic, events and characters start to connect and reappear more frequently as the story picks up. The anime is also streaming legally on Crunchyroll.

 

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47347 I believe it’s safe to say that Attack on Titan was the hit anime series of the season. Dramatic, stylish, and shocking, the series grabbed the audience with a titan-strength grip and wouldn’t let go, even after a season finale that went down with a boom! For those of you who don’t know the set up, the series is centered in an alternative world where humanity has been pushed to the brink by things called titans–human-like beings that tower above humans, making them look like dolls in comparison. For some unknown reason, titans began rampaging long ago, making humans their prey. Driven to desperation, humankind secluded itself within a space sectioned off by three impenetrable walls to stave off further titan attacks. In addition, they created a special military group trained in combating titans, although with little success. Despite the warnings from his mother and his adopted sister, Mikasa, that he’d get himself killed, young Eren dreams of joining the most ill-fated sectors of the military that venture outside the Walls. His other friend, Armin, also dreams of going outside the Walls, although doing so through the military is the last thing on his mind.

But after living in relative peace and safety for some time, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin’s lives are forever changed when a colossal titan breaks through the first Wall, once again releasing the horrors of titans on humanity. They manage to escape to the solace of the second Wall, but not without experiencing loss–Eren’s mother and later, Armin’s grandfather. Eren’s father has disappeared, too, but before that, he leaves Eren with a key to their basement and a mysterious message that Eren find out for himself what is hidden in the basement. Seeking revenge and the answer to his father’s strange demand, Eren becomes a military trainee with his two friends and begins the fight of a lifetime.

Balancing combat sequences in which the threat of death is very real with intense moments of character interaction and development, elements of mystery, and even some humor, Attack on Titan quickly became my addiction of the season; it’s the full package. One of the best surprises of all was the way the series has handled its female characters in relation to its male characters so far. It’s been a trend in shonen manga/anime (that is, series directed at boys) to star a large cast of characters who fight alongside the male hero. Within that group, there have been a good number of female characters in the ranks of fighters, albeit significantly fewer relative to the number of male characters. The catch is, however, those female characters are often differentiated from the male fighters as intelligent and technically skilled, but lacking in prowess and actual battle ability compared to the men. That’s not to say there are not exceptions, but I often run into that type of set up.

That’s why it was nice to see Attack on Titan playing with this trend and switching things around a bit. Instead of making the hero’s female friend the strategically skilled but physically weak character and the hero’s male friend the super skilled, battle prodigy, as happens with popular series such as Naruto, the series flipped the stereotypes. Mikasa acts as the prodigy soldier whose skill excels her comrades and Armin plays the role of the physically weaker genius strategist. I like this change because it removes those skill sets (combat skill/intellect) from a stereotypical connection with one or the other gender. Guys can excel at using their heads instead of their fists and aren’t always great at combat. On the other hand, girls can be great–even better than their male comrades–at combat.shingeki_no_kyojin-06-mikasa-blade-sword-looking_totally_badass-crowd-scouting_team

That brings me to my thoughts on Mikasa. Mikasa, if nothing else, is an intriguing female character. Cool and collected to an almost alarming degree, you’re not going to see this female character hesitate in the face of danger. She’s shown over and over to be more than capable, starting in the first episode when Mikasa scares away a group of bullies who are about to hurt Eren and Armin with her mere presence. (Yes, you read that right: the female friend saves the guys for once.) In later episodes, she’s shown to have the potential to rival one of the best fighters in the military, a battle-hardened man named Levi. She’s not just physically strong, but also mentally as strong as steel. She’s able to rally herself to fight on even in the face of devastation.

She’s certainly far from perfect (she is human after all). Her devotion to Eren is at times worrying–sometimes it seems like Eren could tell Mikasa to jump off a bridge and she would–but it’s made clear that Mikasa has not made herself a mindless servant to Eren. Most notably, Eren tells her repeatedly that he doesn’t need or want her to protect him anymore, but that hasn’t stopped Mikasa from following her own wish to do so anyway. This absolute devotion does, however, make me pause and think of trends of female characters devoted to an extreme–romantically or otherwise–to a male character, which isn’t my favorite.  At least in Mikasa and Eren’s case, the devotion is a result of a traumatic event, which makes Mikasa’s reaction, and the strong bond that forms from the event, more understandable than simply being an unhealthily love-crazy girl. I also like that, from the beginning, Eren and Mikasa’s bond is founded on helping each other, instead of one (aka the girl) always hanging on the other for survival. So far, Eren and Mikasa’s has been fairly even give-and-take. With any luck, the series will keep it that way. In addition, rather than make the tough-as-nails Mikasa vulnerable, a gimmick used frequently, the revealing of her tragic past serves to depict how she became so tough. The use of Mikasa’s background (as well as Levi’s) brings difficult questions about what it means to obtain the strength we often see in action-driven series like Attack on Titan.

But Mikasa isn’t the only dynamic female character in Attack on Titan, not by a long shot. The series is full of female characters who are just as skilled and active as their male comrades. From fellow new recruits to veterans to zealous researchers, there are many types of female characters popping up to play significant roles. Without spoiling anything, there’s a particularly nice twist involving a female character at the end of the season.

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Imagine that. Practical uniforms for both men and women!

And can I just say that I am extremely happy that for once the female characters don’t get a cute/sexy, feminine version of the military uniform in the series? Creators seem compelled to give female officers miniskirts or pink versions of whatever uniforms the male officers are wearing, even combat operatives. Just because they’re female doesn’t mean you have to give them a cute uniform. It was refreshing to see a series that isn’t afraid of treating the female characters just like the male ones: they are treated seriously and don’t exist as attractive things to drool over. In fact, not only do the uniforms not objectify them, but the character designs themselves show that the female characters aren’t just there as eye candy. While there are some female characters in the cast that are cute or beautiful, there are also a number of female characters that don’t fit traditional and limited ideas of beauty. There are also no conveniently angled shots of female butts or boobs nor any unrealistically large female anatomy present. The female characters are treated just like the male characters. To me, that pretty much sums up how Attack on Titan succeeds with its female characters.

It’s violent. It’s brutal. But with interesting characters that break gender roles, good mix of character building and action, and a compelling plot that keeps you begging for the next installment, Attack on Titan is without a doubt my favorite series of the season. Give it a try if you haven’t already. You can watch the entire season for free (and legally) on Crunchyroll.com now.

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I have a confession to make: I can be a bit of a doormat, a people pleaser, a pushover. In the effort to make others happy and/or lacking the backbone to speak my mind, I have a habit of letting others run right over my true wishes and thoughts without so much as a peep of objection. When people ask me, “What do you want to do,” even if I have a preference (which sometimes I just don’t), I smile politely and say, “Oh, whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Or worse, someone will ask me if I’ll do something and, while in my mind, I’m screaming my loathing of the idea, my feeble subconscious automatically moves my lips in the pattern its grown accustomed to and, before I have time to rally my thoughts, its formed the detested words, “Yes.” And with a smile plastered on my face, of course.

images-82So, how is a feminist who’s a confessed doormat like myself supposed to feel when I see a classic doormat female character letting herself be dragged through the course of a story? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. Like everyone else, I like to see characters who I can relate to, even if that means they are not go-get-’em girls who have a healthy amount of backbone at the beginning of the story. While I admire and praise the female characters who get out there and take action, whether that action is starting her own business or taking back a kingdom, I often see more of myself reflected in those female characters who are too nice for their own good and who seem to be waiting for others to make something happen. That has made me hesitate to take the pen against certain characters despite seeing the problems with the messages those characters send.

Of course, just because a female character is passive doesn’t mean I automatically feel something like kinship to her; passive female characters pop up in fiction a fair amount, from classic princesses from fairy tales to modern action flicks and it’s something that I’ve complained about over and over and over and over and over—well, you get the point. But there are times when they strike a cord within me. For example, one famous character who I have a bit of a soft spot for, but who also has some very reasonable complaints lodged against her because of her doormat behavior is Tohru from Fruits Basket. Tohru is a classic doormat at the beginning of the series; always smiling and putting others before her, she is sweet to a fault and will do whatever others ask of her. She’d let herself be tricked and treated poorly if that somehow helps the other person or because she feels she must have deserved that treatment and she apologizes even when she’s done nothing wrong. As unrealistic as that sounds, there is a degree of her character that rings true to me, especially as the series goes on.

The problem lays in the fact that these types of passive heroines reinforce old notions about gender roles and relationships that just aren’t healthy, notions that suggest that an ideal, good woman is someone who does whatever she can to make others happy and does what she is told. These are, of course, very traditional ideas that aren’t as popular as they were, say, in the 50’s, but still manage to surface in fiction as an ideal. To me, doormats are the worst of the breed of passive female characters because they are presented as saint-like in their benevolence in a way that just isn’t possible for even the nicest human being to behave and feel all the time. In addition, in stories like Fruits Basket, she even has people who will stand up and protect her when she won’t herself. Like classic stories like Cinderella, somehow or another the girl with the “purest” heart eventually wins via living happily ever after. Thus, when girls read or watch stories with doormat heroines, they’re supposed to admire and long to be like them with the promise of praise, protection, and “happily ever after” floating around in their heads. Sadly, reality isn’t nearly so sweet and letting others do whatever they want while lowering your own desires and feelings can be dangerous, if not simply unhealthy, whether you are male or female (of course, males who are passive are mercilessly considered “weak” while women still get the message that passiveness can be an attractive trait in them).

However, I don’t think doormat female characters are inherently harmful role models, the likes of which should vanish from fiction. Rather, I think how we present these characters in fiction images-84should be altered. Instead of depicting a complete lack of a backbone as something to be admired in a woman, it should be shown as a type of behavior that some people have, with all the trouble it can bring upon those people. If a doormat character is to be admired, it’s not because she’s so nice that she’ll let others walk all over her, but for, perhaps, her struggle to stand up for herself and gain a backbone. A woman can still be nice without being passive and it takes real effort to flex those assertive muscles after being doormat for some time; as a confessed doormat, that’s one of my biggest struggles. In fact, one of my favorite stories, Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow, largely centers around the internal struggle of Youko, a girl who has spent her life trying to be non-offensive to others, even if it meant ignoring her true thoughts and feelings. (Edit: Even Tohru is revealed to have problems of her own and she is forced to face those problems down the line, something that adds depth to a doormat character that isn’t always depicted.)

So, show me doormat characters, I won’t deny that they exist in reality, but don’t feed misconceptions about what it means to be a doormat. Better yet, give us doormats some extra inspiration by creating more characters who come to recognize the problem with their own behavior and fight it.

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How many times have you read a story about a nice girl head over heels for a guy who seems to treat her like dirt yet is still supposed to be a “good” guy, the guy all the girls dream about? Fiction often gives us tales that are more fun in one’s dreams than in reality and the rough, forceful guy appears to have landed a place in the dreamworld of many a teenage romance stories. But what does it say to young readers, both male and female, if the guy who treats the girl poorly ends up capturing the girl’s heart, sometimes over the choice of a “nice guy” rival? It’s one thing to see that scenario once or twice every couple of years, but when it’s in every other story, people unconsciously start forming ideas over what they read and see everyday. That’s why I was happy to see one manga series that seems to have something else to say about romance to its readers.

In Otomen, Asuka, the guy who loves things like cooking, sewing, romance, and cute things, falls for Ryo, the girl who can’t cook or sew, but can show you martial arts skills that would make even a burly guy think twice about challenging her. It’s the typical opposites attract, but instead of the good girl-bad boy combination that seems so prevalent nowadays in which the good girl must soften the guy’s hard exterior, Asuka and Ryo accept each other as they are and help each other grow. As two people who fall outside gender stereotypes, it can be hard on them to accept themselves at times. Asuka especially is burdened with self-doubt about himself. When he first meets Ryo, he worries that she won’t like a guy who has “girly” interests. But when Ryo discovers Asuka is, in reality, not someone who society would traditionally call “manly,” she doesn’t like him any less. In fact, she accepts him completely, making Asuka realize he wants to, and can, show Ryo his true self. Ryo’s one of the first people he’s felt like he can truly be himself with.  When Asuka starts to feel down about himself, Ryo is always there, cheering him up and accepting every part of him.01_050

While Ryo is much more comfortable with herself, even she has moments of self-doubt. When Ryo is elected to represent her class in a contest to find the most ideal woman in the school, Ryo feels a lot of pressure to not let her classmates down. But she knows that while she might look pretty, internally, she doesn’t match what society thinks an ideal woman is: a woman who is delicate and demure, can cook beautiful and tasty meals, make tea, clean, etc. She’s not good at household things and would choose an action flick over a romance any day. She tries her hardest, but after failing the first two rounds, her classmates are calling her clumsy and Ryo feels she’s a disappointment. Asuka attempts to cheer her up, but Ryo says she’s realized that as a woman she needs to learn things like sewing and cooking and generally how to be more feminine. In one of my favorite moments so far, Asuka confesses he likes her just the way she is and wants her to stay like that. He tells her that if she can’t cook or sew, he can.lotomen_v05_p043

In a way, that really sums up what Asuka and Ryo’s relationship is like; what Asuka feel he lacks, Ryo makes up for and vice versa. It’s one of the most balanced relationships I’ve seen in more recent shojo. Is it a little too rosy and perfect? Yes, but in comparison to other romance fantasies, I love this one which shows a type of relationship with an underlying message that’s healthy and modern: find someone who thinks you’re wonderful for all your faults and all your strengths and support each other.

If that isn’t enough of a message for you, Otomen also goes so far as to make fun of the jerky love interest type. One of Asuka’s friends, Yamato, a boy who looks like a girl, but wants to be manly, struggles with impressing girls so, he does a practice date. It turns out Yamato is one of those people who buys into the idea that jerky guys are cool and as a result, he comically makes a mess of his practice date. He shows up late dressed like a punk(?) because cool guys are supposed to make their girls wait, tries to act tough, pulls his “date” forcefully along without saying anything, and more. I loved this chapter since everything Yamato does to be the “cool” jerk ends up going over poorly. While stuff may seem romantic in fiction, it may not be so cool in real life and Otomen depicts this in quite an amusing fashion.

What do you think? Is Otomen giving readers a better idealized relationship or is it just another example of unattainable perfection? And what do you think of the other relationship trends in fiction? Seriously problematic or just fantasy?

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