So one of my favorite anime Youtubers, Digibro, started a video series called The Asterisk Wars Sucks recently. The videos are great but there was one thing that came up in one of the more recent ones that caught my attention. It caught my attention because other examples of this had caught my attention already. Namely Digibro described how there was a new trend in light novels to have the main character date women who would be the strongest fighters at their schools/in their guilds/in the game if not for the presence of the main dude. The appeal being that the audience can project themselves onto the main character and still feel like manly alpha guys without falling into the cliche of saving the poor damsel in distress, because that cliche has become less popular for a number of reasons. Now that scenario in and of itself doesn’t bother me, if nothing else it is better than just having the main guy save the helpless womenfolk. But I don’t like way I’m seeing light novel adaptations create such a scenario. Before I really get going on this there is another aspect of this trend. That is, in addition to making the women powerful, that some of the women will have more feminine qualities that they only show to the main guy since they have feelings for him. So why do I have a problem with this? Well… (there will be spoilers ahead)
Well in concept I don’t, both aspects of the current trend are fine. However the execution is bugging the hell out of me. See I first took notice of and umbrage to this trend with Asuna. Yeah, that Asuna, from SAO. In my review of SAO, I mentioned how I didn’t like that Asuna was a master chef. This was for two reasons, one because I just felt it made Asuna into waifu bait and two, her taking the time to master cooking was totally at odds with very serious “I must clear this game ASAP” personality. If Asuna had started to learn about cooking after hooking up with Kirito it would have been fine, but because it happened before then, at a time when it seemed out of character for her to do so, I called bullshit. Both of these complaints are largely applicable to all the girls who fit into this new trend, however there is a third complaint both of these feed into, it seems cynical. This light novel trend bugs me so much because it feels cynical and artificial, like the characters are being made this way not as a result of the narrative or as an extension of the setting, but are just manufactured without regard for narrative and setting just to appeal to their audience, i.e. they’re made this way for younger teenage boys. Now I get it, appealing to the audience is very important, especially in niche market shows, but there’s a difference between appealing characters that feel organic and those which don’t. More to the point it’s not actually all that hard to make women who are genuinely strong women that occasionally need help and have a more feminine side. So let’s look at how that’s done.
You know you don’t need to be some deep, mature show to nail this type of character because fucking Fairy Tail can manage it. Yeah, Fairy Tail, one of the shows I see most widely panned across the anime community. Specifically Erza, Mirajane and Cana, though it can be applied to some extent to all the main girls. See since the new trend is all about appealing to teenage boys, fanservice is a part of the package. Now I have nothing against fanservice, but I don’t like it being superimposed on characters and a narrative that isn’t necessarily sexual. Here’s an example, Kirito and Asuna having sex was fine because the story and characters had progressed to a point where that was a natural outcome, but when Kirito accidentally groped Asuna in episode 7 or 8 it wasn’t fine because that had nothing to do with the story or characters, it was just there because it was a typical harem anime trope. Which brings me back to the Fairy Tail women. Most of the major women on Fairy Tail look like typical pandering female characters at first glance. Mostly stacked, often exposing a fair amount of skin, a couple token loli’s for men who are into that, and you get the idea. All of the main women also have moments of vulnerability, or times when they need saving, as well as feminine traits. But you know what they also have? Confidence, power and agency. Looking at Erza and Cana specifically, as the women who show the most skin, you can see the difference. Unlike Asuna or the girls of the Asterisk War, Erza and Cana are not embarrassed when they wear something revealing and sexy. Sure that seems like a minor detail but it goes beyond the fanservice. Erza and Cana are always confident, ok they do have moments of weakness, vulnerability and femininity, but most of the time these women are confident in themselves and in their skills. In Erza’s case she’s earned it because she often terrifies the men by being stronger than them, she’s a major force in the story. And it is because of this very strength, this confidence and agency, that the scenes where she is vulnerable and feminine feel not only genuine but make her far more endearing, which in turn make her way sexier than any fucking tsundere panty shots or jiggling boobs could ever hope to be on their own.
This is what bothers me perhaps more than anything else. I mean I hate the cynical, artificial feel of this new trend, I think it hurts the artistry inherent in character creation, because I love artistry and character creation. That is a big part of my anger towards this trend, but at least it seems more like a justifiable business idea. But the fact that it results in characters, storytelling and fanservice that is weaker than fucking Fairy Tail is just pathetic. Look as far as long running shounen go I love Fairy Tail, well before the 2014 shit happened, but I’m not going to hold up as some great work of art. I will argue that it is a good long running shounen series and that it has some artistry worthy of note, but come on, I don’t think anyone is going to claim Fairy Tail is a hallmark of quality where anime is concerned. Hell it’s aimed at an audience that is even younger than the shows featuring this cynical trend, though there is overlap. Which is the thing that pisses me off, this trend makes for scenes and characters that are less endearing and sexy than the genuine article. Again I’m not talking about the girls who fall into this trend not matching up to characters who stand as the paragons of strong female lead, I’m talking them not measuring up to Juvia Lockser who constantly obsesses over “Gray-sama” or Lucy Heartfalia who is often characterized as only having tits that brings some boys to the yard. Yea I know I didn’t talk about them above, they are messier examples that don’t highlight the traits I wanted to talk about as nicely as Erza, but they are still better than the girls who fall under this new trend. I don’t even particularly like Lucy or Juvia when compared to the other girls, but even they have moments that do endear me to them. They have some of the agency and power Erza and those like her have, enough so that they can fight most of their own battles and even have their moments of badassery. Both Lucy and Juvia need to be saved from time to time, but they also have fights where they save the male characters every once in a while. Which brings me to my next point.
This trend feels off to me for a number of reasons. And one of them is the disconnect I feel with the appeal it’s going for and the actual result. As mentioned above this trend is about striking a balance between making the women of the story seem strong and valuable while still allowing the male lead to overpower them all. In short it’s about giving teenage boys their power fantasy while trying to avoid appearing sexist or chauvinistic. And to me it fails in both aspects. I mean it’s nice to see women who don’t stand back and let the men do everything, hello there Sakura, but at the same time to me it feels wrong. It feels wrong because I don’t get the sense that these women are actually powerful, just that they are given the pretense of being powerful but lack the heart of the notion. It feels almost duplicitous to me because it’s trying to sell the women as strong and important characters while delivering the same old damsel in distress after she’s been touched up a little. Again the lack of sincerity, the lack of organic, genuine characters that this trend spawns cheapens the whole thing for me. In fact I found Asuna and Sinon to be more maligned than the old useless girls like Sakura. Because at least Sakura never pretended to be anything else, never showed promise as a strong female character. I mean that in and of itself, is pretty pathetic but I find it less offensive than what happened to Sinon and Asuna. Both Sinon and Asuna looked like they would be strong female leads and in Asuna’s case she was, at least for a bit. But as SAO wore on Sinon fell apart to the point where she not only told Kirito to protect her forever but also had him tell her what to do when they fought Death Gun, and Asuna was forced to play the helpless damsel in a fucking cage and even after she was saved from said cage she faded into the background until the Mother’s Rosario arc. And in even Mother’s Rosario Asuna was more of a medium for the audience to experience the story through than the hero who saved the day. Basically both women were given the pretense of power and agency early on so that they appeared better than useless damsels in distress, and then were robbed of it later to the point where they embody the same ideas that the damsel in distress is built on. It’s fucking bullshit, and even if new girls that come from this trend don’t end up this way, I’d have a hard time believing they would ever become genuinely strong characters. Now onto that male power fantasy.
I admit I may be something of a weirdo when it comes to the male power fantasy and power fantasies in general. Every now and then I do follow the traditional patterns of thought associated with the phrase, wanting to save the girl and be a manly man. But the thing is, almost all of those male power fantasies take place here in our world, where I imagine myself doing something defined by more realistic expectations. If I’m watching a story that takes place in another world or way in the future why the fuck would I want to project myself on anyone in that story? And even if I wanted to do that why would I focus on the male power fantasy specifically? For example let’s pretend I’m projecting myself onto Saitama from One Punch Man, I’m not projecting myself onto him because he’s the main guy, because he’s a guy or because he gets all the women (he doesn’t), the only reason I would ever want to project myself onto Saitama is that his power is fucking ridiculous and it would be awesome to be able to have said power. Most of the time I don’t even do that though. Rather than project myself onto a character in a story, my preferred mental exercise is to write for myself a totally fictional character that logically and organically fits into the world of the story and is ideally relevant to the narrative, who is hilariously overpowered more often than not because that’s how I do my power fantasies thank you very much. I told you I’m weird. Hell half the time these characters I make up are women not because I understand being what it’s like to be a woman but because strong women are infinitely more attractive to me than weak women.
Which is where I’m left feeling off by the women in this trend. Because these women are not genuinely strong, them being feminine adds nothing to their character and has no added bonus to a male power fantasy. I admit that teenage me might have been into this kind of stuff, I can’t really say for sure though, but as I am now this is just off-putting. Even if I were inclined to indulge in the type of male power fantasy this trend is trying to create, then it would only work if the women were genuine in in their strength. Maybe teenage boys just want to pretend they could swoop in and solve the problems of their dream girl and win her over without breaking a sweat, but I’d feel much more accomplished if the character I was projecting myself onto was helping some who usually didn’t need his help, someone who was of equal or maybe even greater strength, and that only after significant effort did he win this girl’s affection. I guess the point of this long, disjointed and rambling paragraph is basically that I don’t see the value in making “strong women” characters if you’re going to have the male lead outclass them by insane margins. If the main guy is so powerful he can swoop in and solve every girl’s problem effortlessly then why try and make them strong at all? If he occasionally swooped in to save them during a fight where they were made vulnerable for some reason, like when Natsu defeated Jellal in Erza’s stead, then this dynamic would work well. Because that way you still have the male power fantasy but you get it without diminishing the strength of the women or cheapening the story. But when the male lead outshines all the girls without much effort and solves all of their problems all the time, then why even pretend the girls were strong to begin with? At that point they are following in Sakura’s footsteps despite ostensibly begin strong women. And seeing women who should logically be strong, forcibly relegated to Sakura status, damsels-who-do-nothing-but-stand-back-and-let-the-men-handle-things, is even more offensive to me than a girl who was always a weak female character, because at least that is honest in its chauvinism or lack of ability to write a good female character.
So that’s where I stand on this trend. Cynically making women who appear competent and strong, before making them irrelevant by introducing a protagonist who is better than all of them combined several times over, is shit. It feels artificial and off-putting, it’s less powerful than having a man save a woman who actually is strong, and in the end I think it’s even more insulting to men and women alike then just plain old weak damsels in distress. And what well and truly pisses me off about the whole thing is how easy it is to make it better. You don’t have to be some kind of literary genius to make strong women who have feminine aspects and moments of vulnerability and who may need saving on occasion but still feel organic. I’m not asking anyone to make a perfectly realized female character that truly communicates the all the aspects involved in being both strong and a woman, I’m asking people to fucking try and write a character that is designed to be a character first and a teenage fantasy second. Is it really possible for people who write for living to be so incompetent as to fail to grasp that, in order for the kind of appeal this trend is going for to work, the characters should feel organic? Or are the people doing this really so cynical that they’re banking on the intended audience being too young, stupid and/or horny to care? I’m honestly not sure which scenario is the more deplorable. What I am sure of is that this trend is a pathetic attempt at character creation, resulting in characters so lacking in heart and soul that their creators ought to bow their heads in shame. Fuck this trend, fuck fake “strong women” and most importantly fuck us all for allowing anime to reach such an abysmally low standard in the art of creating compelling stories and characters.
Hopefully you enjoyed this, next up, a post about how to make real strong women and why those women are hot.