Understanding Characters: Strong Women

So in my last post about ripping on the new light novel trend of manufacturing women characters that appear strong but are ultimately treated as damsels in distress, I spent some time explaining what it took to make a real strong female character.  Now I’m going to expand that topic into it’s own post because I think its important.  There will be scattered spoilers ahead.

Before I really get going on this topic, I’m going to needlessly complicate things by way of me pontificating on the nature of strength itself.  Strength, in my eyes, has nothing to do with a character’s power level.  Yes strong people often are powerful, but power and strength don’t necessarily go hand in hand.  Soul Eater illustrates this well, the Kishin is stupidly powerful but at the same time he is crippled by his own weakness, his lack of strength, which causes him to fear everything.  This is because strength, as I interpret it, is more closely tied to a character’s heart, mind and soul.  Those who are powerless can still be strong fucking people, because their strength of character allows them endure what weaker characters can’t handle.  So when it comes to strong women, there’s no such thing as the best strong woman of them all, because that ignores that there are multiple kinds of strong women all of whom deserve to be recognized for their merits.  Naturally this applies to men too, but since this post is about women I won’t be talking about them.  Anyway what this means is that it’s very hard for me to lay down any specific rules or set of traits that strong women should have, but there is one thing I can think of that everyone needs and that’s agency.  Agency, for those who don’t know, is a character’s ability to take action of their own accord and have influence over the story, setting and characters who surround them.  For example, let’s look at Hinata from Naruto.  For most the story Hinata is such a background character you can be forgiven for forgetting she exists at all, especially since until the Pain fight her actions are almost all defined by her embarrassment in the presence of Naruto.  Since most of her actions are not truly actions, but are instead reactions to the presence of the male lead, Hinata has no agency.  But in the Pain fight when she actively chooses to go out and fight, she has agency.  In both scenarios Hinata acts a certain way because of the situation Naruto is in, but in the Pain fight she chooses what that action is, and that in a nutshell is agency.  So in order to make this post helpful, I’m going to put together as many trends as I can and talk about a handful of strong women that I really like and why I think they are strong.  Bear in mind that I am a dude so some things will probably slip under my figurative radar.  Now onto the women.

Let’s start by using some of the most iconic and well known strong women as a way to talk about the trends that built them.  Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi and literally any of the major women of Neon Genesis Evangelion, are held up as paragons of strong women by a good sized chunk of the anime community.  And for good reason, they are excellent strong women characters, and conveniently, they neatly outline two popular but opposite trends when it comes to writing strong women.  Let’s start with Evangelion.  In Neon Genesis Evangelion almost everyone, not just the women, is badly damaged by a wide variety of traumas.  Loss of parents is common to many of characters, many of them faced their respective traumas as children, many continue to struggle with their day to day life as a result of their traumas or the damage left in the wake of Second Impact.  And despite all this negativity, this pain and mental scaring, you find characters who are often willing to fight the toughest enemies humanity has ever faced.  Impossible odds and otherworldly terrors, complete with the pressure that failure likely means annihilation, are just another day at the office in NERV.  In short, because these people have survived their various traumas, they have emerged stronger.  They are still very much damaged, and it can cause them to break down or run away, but when all the chips are down these are people who roll up their sleeves and get shit done because they have the mental fortitude to struggle in the face overwhelming odds.  This is how the majority of strong women characters are written, as characters who have overcome trauma and emerged stronger than their former self.  Now there are no hard and fast rules about this trend is used.  You can have characters whose strength comes solely in response to the trauma, others can be strong before the trauma and then emerge even stronger after a traumatic experience.  Riza Hawkeye is a great of example of the latter.  She was strong enough to volunteer to be a soldier before the Ishval war, but she’s clearly shaken by the brutality of the war when she’s in it, yet when we meet her as a Lieutenant serving as aide to Colonel Mustang, she’s clearly stronger than her former self.  But we can get into more specific examples later, for now let’s look at Kusanagi and the trends that built her.

Kusanagi stands in glaring opposition to women who got stronger through trauma.  Kusanagi was always strong for one reason or another, it’s at this point I should admit I’ve only seen the original Ghost in the Shell movie so if I get some things wrong, that’s why.  Anyway as far as I know Kusanagi never experienced trauma, her drive to be the ass-kicking leader of her squad, is just a part of who she is.  It’s such a fundamental aspect of her character that it almost defies logical explanation.  The answer to the question “why is Kusanagi strong?” is simply “because she’s Kusanagi” and no amount of justification will change that.  This trend, of inherent strength of character, is considerably rarer than the reaction to trauma trend detailed above.  This is for two reasons, one, it’s harder to understand because a lot of people demand that things come from somewhere and wrapping their head around the idea that the trait is innate to the character just doesn’t register, also you really have to sell the audience that the character’s strength is innate otherwise it strains suspension of disbelief and convincing us of this is itself tricky.  Two, the whole reaction to trauma idea just makes more sense to most people and it’s not hard to use well, so it’s just an issue of the path of least resistance.  Anyway lest you think Kusanagi is just some fluke, or in case I’ve made some mistakes without realizing it, here’s another example, Balalaika from Black Lagoon.  Balalaika is one of the most terrifying women in all of anime, even forgetting her physical capabilities or those of her loyal subordinates in Hotel Moscow, which are impressive on their own, the strength of her character is frightening in it’s intensity.  For example the impression I got while watching the show was that while Revy or Dutch would never want to fight Hotel Moscow, the person they are most afraid of is Balalaika herself.  More to the point what makes Balalaika seem so threatening is her ability to always dominate any scene with her mere presence, she seems just as powerful when she’s about to off some nobody as when she’s standing over Roberta and Revy who are no slouches themselves.  Like the trauma trend, there are no rules this inherent strength has, it manifests very differently for different characters.  And with that I think it’s time to switch gears and look at a handful of my favorite strong women because I’m running out of things to say about this trend.

The two trends I’ve been talking about are just common aspects of characterization that a lot of strong women share, they don’t tell whole story at all, especially since they are at best loose guidelines as far as character creation is concerned.  Which is what makes Balsa, Seirei no Moribito’s leading lady, so interesting.  I’ve talked about Balsa before here and here, but she’s well written enough that she deserves more analysis.  Balsa is a mix of both trends I’ve been talking about, she is forced to flee her home at a young age, her father is killed and her foster father is eventually killed.  She also shows an inherent level of strength of character, adapting to the loss of her home and father quickly, before becoming a badass fighter herself.  But the thing that really puts the cherry on top is how Balsa is both of these while also being a maternal guardian.  Now the maternal guardian is a very common trope to basically every medium in existence, and as such it’s not a huge fucking stretch to think out it as an outdated and possibly even chauvinistic or sexist characterization.  Now it can be all of those things when used wrong, but it also has a unique narrative power when used right.  Keep in mind that motherhood has been associated with women since forever and since it’s something men can’t experience, it has a unique suggestive power to a large section of the potential audience.  And maybe if used it right it can even make women feel empowered or better about themselves, I have no idea if that’s true but if any women would like to confirm or deny the statement, I’m curious to know, so please feel free to comment.  Anyway I feel it adds an extra layer to both Balsa the character and the story in general.  I mean Balsa still gets to be the badass fighter, the solid and reliable leader of the party, the glue that holds everyone together.  But she also gets to play the maternal figure to male lead, and that adds another dynamic to her character, and deepens the nuance of the character interactions, which is super fucking important in a story where character interactions are the bread and butter of many episodes.  There’s even a scene where one of Balsa’s charges literally weeps when he’s forced to leave Balsa behind, even though he’s being reunited with his actual parents, because she’s been such a influential and beloved figure in his life.  And that moment, which was a damn powerful moment, could never have been told if Balsa wasn’t a maternal guardian.  Her character is enriched by her maternal side, not cheapened by it.  And the fact she’s able to maintain her maternal side while also being the awesome powerful fighter and a strong leader like Major Kusanagi, makes her one of the most impressively well written woman character I’ve ever seen.  I can’t say Balsa is my favorite female character of all time, but she is arguably the most technically proficient and that’s a far more impressive achievement than being someone’s favorite strong woman.  Next up Karulawatarei from Utawarerumono (which I reviewed here).

Part of what makes Karulawatarei, or Karula for short, interesting is how she is both similar to and almost the opposite of Balsa.  Like Balsa she is built on both the trauma and inherent strength trends.  She is losses her kingdom and is enslaved when she is young.  Yet when we meet her for the first time, she’s rocking a cocky smile as she emerges from a shipwreck before going on to wreck a whole crew of armed guards with her bare hands.  The thing she shares most closely with Balsa is confidence.  A lot of of strong women have confidence, but very few have it on the same level as Balsa and Karula.  Karula is confident at all times, in all situations.  She seems just as relaxed when she’s enjoying a cup of sake at home or when she’s brawling with hordes of enemy soldiers.  She’s comfortable with herself at all times, and that’s not something I can say of many characters, though to be fair a lot of people in the real world have a hard time being confident and comfortable with themselves.  Anyway what makes Karula different from Balsa is how the two mature.  Balsa emerges from her experiences and creates a purpose for herself, meanwhile Karula makes a conscious decision to enjoy not having a purpose.  Karula is at once a constant and constantly going with the flow, becoming a reliable ally to those whom she deems worthy of following.  That might sound like Karula is more of a servant type, which clashes with the strong woman characterization, but while she chooses (and the fact she chooses to be in this position is an important part of her character) to be a subordinate she is by no means servile.  At one point she actually kidnaps her own king, whom she chose to serve, to force him into helping a cause she believes in.  She takes more of a second among equals approach to most of the cast, letting her king dictate the plan but refusing to be a pawn, not that she’s ever really treated like one.  In fact she’s proud of her approach and of her way of life, even refusing to let her friends try and remove the giant shackle on her neck because at this point her experiences as a former slave and gladiator are so integral to her personality that the trauma associated with those experiences no longer bother her.  And that, I think, is a more poignant expression of strength than finding a purpose in response to trauma, if nothing else it’s so rare I’m almost tempted to call it unique, and that gets my respect in and of itself.  Next up another character whose name starts with a K, Kikyo of Inuyasha.

Most of the time strong women are forced into one of three roles, one of the main characters, a support character who’s important to the main characters ala Winry Rockbell, or the villainess.  Which is why Kikyo is so special, she’s none of these.  Kikyo is something of an ambiguous entity for most Inyasha’s run time.  Her end goals seem suitably good, which is reasonable given her background as miko (that’s shrine priestess for those who don’t know).  However she also shows a lot more anger and even malice then her backstory or former position would imply.  Yet strangely, Kikyo’s attitude never strains suspension of disbelief, not even when her actions appear outright evil, like when she straight up gives Naraku Kagome’s large Jewel of Four Souls shard.  She also adds an interesting dynamic to the character relations, I mean yeah she creates a love triangle big whoop, but she creates a love triangle where the hero actually chooses her not the heroine, and I can’t stress enough how rare that is.  Another part what makes Kikyo interesting is her ability to influence the overall narrative.  In an old post about badasses I linked in Balsa’s section, I said one of the things good badasses can do is totally steal the spotlight whenever they make an appearance.  Kikyo does that most of the time, but she also takes it one step further.  When Kikyo steps into the story she usually causes drastic changes to the struggle, or at least causes enough chaos in the character relationships to force everyone to take a breather.  She actually holds a similar position to Sesshoumaru, an ambiguous and very very powerful force that collides with the main characters from time to time.  Basically Kikyo has a ton of agency and influence over the story, to the point where she steers the main conflict about as much as the heroes and the villain.  Moreover, because she’s not restricted to a heroic or villainous role, she is versatile and the scenarios she creates or involves herself in are more flexible and varied.  In one episode she can try and kill Inuyasha, in another she can intervene in a scenario that might get Inuyasha killed.  She can be in episodes where she quietly does her own thing or episodes where she’s the catalyst for major story developments.  And that flexibility, coupled with power, confidence and an interesting relationship with the male lead, is what makes Kikyo so special.  It’s a rather remarkable combination of traits that has resulted in a compelling and engaging character.  Now onto the next character.

The women I’ve been talking about thus far are all mature women, which is how a lot of strong women are presented.  And for good reason, it can be used extremely effectively and in all honesty, more mature women are more likely to be appreciated by an older audience.  Rin from Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, was a woman a spent some time discussing here because she highlights the value of mature women and mature shows, and she is a strong woman.  However rather than keeping on about mature women, I think it’s time to talk about immature strong women.  And to to kick off this section of the post I think a good starting point is Yona of Akatsuki no Yona, because I already reviewed that show here and I’m re-watching that show at the moment.  Yona is a fascinating woman because of how strong she is while also being so powerless.  Well sort of.  Actually what makes Yona truly compelling is how she actually starts off as a very weak character.  For the first 4ish episodes, Yona is not only totally powerless and useless, her character is so fragile and weak that she can barely function without Hak.  And if that had been Yona’s entire character she would never have made this list.  However, it is only by understanding how weak and powerless she was at the start, that we can truly appreciate how strong she gets by season’s end.  She still never got powerful, at least not compared to those around her, but she is incredibly strong, I mean she, a former princess, volunteered to pose as a slave on an enemy ship so her allies could sink it.  That takes a lot more courage and strength than it takes to be merely powerful.  More importantly with Yona we get to see the rather interesting process of her becoming stronger, more mature and powerful all at the same time.  In a lot of the strong but immature women characters I’ve seen, they either already have strength or power and are on the way to maturity.  But Yona has to acquire all of them as the story goes forward.  Which is why, when she has those moments that show her strength, are so striking and powerful.  It’s excellent writing, and I for one can’t wait for a second season of Akatsuki no Yona.  Onto the next strong woman.

Continuing in the theme of powerless strength, one of the common archetypes of women characters from mostly older shows was what I call the Sufferer.  Typically this archetype manifests itself as a woman who is the wife or girlfriend of someone going to war, or something like that where the woman has to wait while worrying about the fate of her man.  Now that was just a typical example from TV and cinema, it doesn’t end up this way too often in anime.  Winry Rockbell who I mentioned above is a decent example, she supports the Elric brothers but is largely left to worry about them while she waits at home or the workshop.  Now Winry is a great example of how this archetype can still be engaging but she’s not the one I really want to focus on, that honor goes to Togame of Katanagatari.  Togame is an interesting woman because she’s able to switch from moments of mature and collected actions, and childish tsundere outbursts without either seeming out of character.  Also while Togame is powerless, she actually makes a point of proudly proclaiming her own powerlessness to some of her opponents, she’s not useless.  She’s a strategist, she’s very intelligent and some battles are won because of the various tricks and tactics Togame has up her sleeves.  But this is all beside the point, why is Togame strong?  Because more than anything else she’s able to make plans she knows will hurt her in order to succeed.  I mean for fucks sake she was going to commission the the man who killed her father, and forced her out of her comfortable life as a princess, to work for her on a ridiculously difficult quest because she figured he was the best bet to succeed.  That takes some serious willpower, to set aside all the terrible memories associated with a person in order to work with them on an important endeavor.  Even more telling much Togame’s character works this way, she outright says that she wouldn’t scheme if it didn’t hurt her.  There’s a lot more to that statement than strength or suffering, but it also speaks volumes about Togame’s relationship with both.  I mean Togame’s not a blatant masochist, so it’s not like she gets off on her own suffering, her relationship with suffering is way more complex than that, to the point that even after watching the show four times I can still honestly admit I don’t entirely get it.  What I can say for sure, however, is that it takes a lot of courage and strength to live a life wherein you cause yourself a lot of suffering by choice.  Regardless of how irrational Togame’s behavior seems as I’ve described it (not that all people are rational) she finds a way make it work, to remain compelling as a strong character.  Ok only two more types to go.

The next type of strong woman is something of a difficult case because it’s actually easy to argue that they are weak.  This archetype is what I like to call the Outsider.  It’s not a common archetype, but it is an interesting one.  The Outsider is sort of similar to the inherent strength trend, in that the character is very difficult to understand and relate to.  However the Outsider takes the alien aspects of inherent strength to a much higher level, resulting in characters that can barely seem human at all.  Esdeath from Akame ga Kill is one of the more prominent examples of this but she’s not the one I want to talk about.  That’s because I think Shiki from Kara no Kyoukai is much better example.  Kara no Kyoukai itself is pretty weird, with interesting supernatural elements, seemingly needlessly complex or deep ideas interspersed with truly profound ideas and so on.  Anyway I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Shiki an Outsider.  I mean not only do more normal people avoid her outright, with only the male lead being the exception and he is considered odd too, but she deals almost exclusively in the supernatural and her powers most strongly affect the supernatural.  Where the danger of calling Shiki strong appears is where it appears for most characters in this archetype, rather than projecting strength she projects emptiness which could be construed as a form of weakness.  Emptiness is after all often a consequence of a character being broken by a trauma instead of overcoming it.  However where Shiki starts to prove that conception wrong is how she’s learning to become more than empty.  But to really illustrate what I mean I’m going to stop talking about Shiki and start talking Qiang Lei from Kingdom (which I also reviewed, weird how that keeps happening).  Like Shiki, Qiang Lei is more attuned to the supernatural than other characters, though in her case she’s one of the only supernatural characters because Kingdom is more about history than fantasy.  Likewise she’s also a character define by emptiness at first, though she follows the typical anti-hero revenge story where Shiki does not.  What makes Qiang Lei interesting though is how she gradually starts growing throughout the story.  She still keeps to herself, doesn’t talk much, and is distinctly different from her friends and allies but she’s no longer an empty vessel fueled by a need for vengeance.  She, a drifter by nature, finds a home in her allies, the people she’s fought three major battles with, and acknowledges that she needs to get her vengeance behind her in order to really move forward.  It’s actually one of the best forms of the vengeful character I’ve seen because she’s not obsessed with her revenge to the point where she leaves everyone supporting her behind, hello there Sasuke and Kurapika, but instead resolves to get her revenge so she can finally close this chapter of her life and move the hell on.  And feel like that’s a powerful expression of strength, to, after years of surviving on revenge alone, forge a new life for yourself, to remain an Outsider while also committing yourself to making a place for yourself among a lot of people who don’t fully understand you.  To come back to the struggles that come with living after years of pushing those aside, to accept the weight of responsibility once again after shying away from it, that’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not something the weak can do.  Overall Qiang Lei makes for a great character because of how close she comes to a couple anime tropes before gracefully choosing a slightly different and altogether refreshing path.  And now for the figurative final form.

The final archetype I want to look is what I call the Game Changer.  As the name implies, the Game Changer is someone who radically reshapes the world of the story just by entering it.  For example, in Kill la Kill Satsuki was always going to rebel against Ragyo, regardless of whether or not Ryuko ever showed up.  However the appearance of Ryuuko blindsides Satsuki and causes her to grow.  It drives her to finally put on Junketsu, leads to the creation more powerful Goku uniforms, helps Satsuki perform the three cities raid more efficiently, helps Sanageyama level up and so on.  Even if the overall plan remains unchanged the details have been totally re-written because Ryuuko showed up.  Another great example of the Game Changer is Ichinose Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds.  Hajime is even more influential than Ryuuko, totally changing the way the entire Gatchaman organization works, even causing all of Japan undergo drastic changes in national policies and attitudes.  Both Hajime and Ryuuko also share a particular brand of strength, uncompromising individuality.  A lot of people like to pretend they have an uncompromising individuality, but let’s face it in order to function in most of society you can’t be uncompromising in your individuality.  Likewise it’s easy to talk shit about being an individual standing up to the Man, and make a big deal about sticking it to the System, but how many people actually do so in any kind of meaningful way?  Given how society and the System is slow to change even when people are clamoring about how much it’s changed already, I’d say pretty few.  Which is where Hajime and Ryuuko come in.  Hajime basically forces the world to dance to her tune, pre-established rules and norms mean nothing to her, and she’s undaunted by taking actions that end up having far-reaching consequences.  The biggest difference between Hajime and Ryuuko is that almost no one is able to put up serious resistance to Hajime, and while Hajime changes things all the time she’s also influenced by society and changes a bit herself.  The world of Gatchaman Crowds is more fluid, standing in direct opposition to the rigid world of Honnoji Academy.  Ryuuko doesn’t change the world the way Hajime does, her appearance doesn’t change the overall direction of pre-existing organizations even if alters the details significantly.  However Ryuuko also resists change, and refuses to bow down in the face of determined and frequent opposition.  This is one of the many things that makes Ryuuko my favorite strong female character, because I wish I could be this uncompromising, I wish could I spit in the world’s face when it told me I had to abide by its rules, I wish I had that kind of strength.  Now I’d hardly call myself normal by America’s standards but even I, can’t tell the world to fuck off all the time and look like a badass.  Ryuuko can.  Moreover, Ryuuko can change but only when she wants to, rather than have changes imposed on her, which again speaks to the solidity of her character.  She exemplifies the power of the individual in it’s purest and, by my reckoning, most appealing form.  And the strength it takes to do that is truly unfathomably great.

Thank you all for reading, this was a lot of somewhat repetitive text.  This has been a pretty big project for me, it’s officially the longest post I’ve ever written since I started this blog.  I hope you all enjoyed it, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding Characters: Strong Women

  1. I’m so glad you mentioned Balsa here! Not just because she’s one of my all-time favourite anime characters regardless of gender, but also because it’s so very rare to see any main role given to an adult woman – let alone one who also takes on the role of a parent. I’d dearly love to see more of these kinds of characters in anime (if only because I don’t think I should /need to celebrate the fact that I get to see a physically and emotionally mature woman star as the lead in an anime, and without a shred of fanservice to diminish the experience), but I’ll take my victories where I can get them.

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  2. One of the most compelling reasons for watching Yona of the Dawn is Yona’s character growth. In the beginning, she’s a weak, spoiled little brat who only thinks of herself. What I think sets her apart from other female characters in her position is when she lost everything, she didn’t suddenly power up. There was no instant grant of amazing badassery and skills she didn’t have an episode ago. No, she’s actually shown falling apart and building herself back up so she can survive in her new lifestyle. She knows she isn’t strong. She acknowledges that she is selfish in asking the Four Dragons to lend her their power. She has flaws and admits it. She’s vain. On top of that, you’re shown her learning to fight. She is actually shown training with the bow so she can become better. A small detail, but an important one to me; the animators took the time to show that her hands shook when she was learning. She wasn’t instantly granted steady hands and a keen eye. She had to learn like everyone else. At times Yona can be hopelessly naive, but she’s still strong in her convictions and purpose. And that, to me, is why she’s one of the most well developed female lead characters I’ve seen in anime.

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