On Strong Female Characters, Again

Occasionally people say that anime and manga have a dearth of strong female characters, that they are relegated to supporting roles where they must step aside for the male leads. But while such characters do exist, to think that they are the majority of female characters in anime and manga betrays a myopic view of anime and manga fueled primarily by titles designed for guys looking for some kind of power fantasy.

I recently began reading Attack No. 1, a 60s shoujo manga about volleyball and one of the most famous sports manga series ever. Being a 60s title and well before the advent of the Showa 24 Group, I somewhat expected the main heroine Kozue to be demure and dainty and in need of a strong man, but I was proven completely wrong. That part in the anime’s opening where Kozue goes, “But I shed tears. I’m a girl, after all?” That is a complete diversion from what she really is.

In the first few chapters, Kozue is a transfer student who antagonizes the teacher by sleeping through classes, then goes up to the girls’ volleyball team and accuses them of not truly understanding volleyball. She then makes a bet that she can beat their trained team using just a ragtag bunch of complete beginners, and then in order to achieve her goal trains her erstwhile teammates so hard that they collapse from exhaustion repeatedly.

Everyone talks about how Hagio Moto and her comrades revolutionized shoujo manga, and they surely did, but going back even to the prior decade we can see a heroine who shows strength, both inner and outer. And as you continue along throughout the decades, you can see more and more examples. Don’t let the popularity of certain titles and genres blind you.

But I also realize that it’s very easy to call just about any female character a “strong one,” particularly when they are designed to be badass action heroes. These fall into two dangerous categories, the first being the “action damsel,” where a girl is a strong and capable fighter up until the point that she gets kidnapped and needs a man, and the second being the “man in a woman suit,” as Hisui from the Speakeasy Podcast so put it. The issue with the former is that it tends to undercut all of the development a female character might have, while the problem with the latter is that it pushes a very specific idea of what it means to be “strong.”

In the same podcast, Hisui also says that his problem with the “man in a woman suit” is that it is essentially a shortcut to actual well-developed character portrayal, and that it is pretty much shallow. I pretty much agree with Hisui on this matter, but I also want to address another great danger that comes from associating the idea of “strong female characters” with “tough action hero,” and that is that it implies that the only way for a female character to be strong is to be “like a guy,” or to put it more broadly, that the only way is through physical strength and hardened grit and determination.

Think about that for a moment. It’s bad enough that we define male strength through physical prowess, but to also try to group women in there as well is a grave mistake. Putting characters and fiction aside for a moment, true strength comes from within, it is not something measured simply through muscles and athletic ability. While a person who is physically strong, male or female, can also be strong inside, the former without the latter is an empty shell. Though I know that Hokuto no Ken isn’t the best example of strong female characters, as most of them are there to just stand aside at let men fight men, I think of the little girl whom Kenshiro rescues early on, Rin.

In one chapter, Rin is kidnapped by a gang of misshapen thugs who have terrorized an entire village. In order to oppress the villagers, the gang ruthlessly forces them to walk on a pit of fire, with many casualties naturally resulting. The villagers are gripped with fear, but when it’s Rin’s turn to walk the coals, she remembers Kenshiro’s words, that she cannot give in to fear, that she cannot let them win. Rin willingly walks towards the flames, head held high, and in doing so shames the villagers. If such a little girl has the spirit to fight back, what does that say about all of the full-grown men who cowered in the shadows?

Then Rin eventually becomes some kind of damsel-in-distress and there’s a whole marrying Rin arc when she gets older, but I chalk that up more to the second part of Hokuto no Ken being terrible overall than anything else. But there it is, even in Shounen Jump you can find a display of great inner strength in a female character, albeit temporarily.

One more time, I want to state that strong female characters in anime and manga definitely do exist and in large numbers. If asked, I can even start listing them off, but the important thing to take away here is that you simply have to look in the right places with the right mindset.

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15 thoughts on “On Strong Female Characters, Again

  1. I think plenty of characters of either gender have both moments of strength at times and times where they must rely on others. People seem to focus on the latter as a sign of a characters weakness and overlook the characters moments of strength.

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  2. Various forms of strength and different ways we recognize it. Strength is a measure, not an attribute or direction. If we talk vectors, strength can be the scalar magnitude, while the attribute can be the direction. :)

    Strong will, strong mind, strong body, etc. I think it also has to do with how we perceive each type of strength, and how it’s presented. Some viewers may come to realize a given strength within the right context.

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  3. I think the key problem with this entire discussion, and a driving factor behind why I’m completely apathetic towards it, is that the criteria for “strong” is never adequately defined. Does it mean “non-stereotypical”? Well, there are both positive and negative stereotypes. “Independent”? That seems like it could be a little more close, but what aspects of independence are we evaluating?

    “Man in a woman suit” is an extremely common criticism levied towards female characters for exhibiting violent or traditionally masculine traits such as acting in action roles. This is a common label thrown at characters like Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, pretty much the entire female cast of Black Lagoon, and for all I know even Lady Oscar from Rose of Versailles despite the fact that she is quite literally a woman in a man suit.

    Me, I try to keep it easy: in an action series, the strong characters are ones who carry out the action. In a comedy, the strong characters are the ones who are funny, and so on and so forth. Strength of will and personal resolve is nice, but if it’s not going to save you when Yuda crashes your wedding then in the context of that series you are not a “strong” character.

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  4. Another thing worth considering is the cultural implications of what it means to have feminine strength. Often in western productions, the evolved form of strong females has splintered into several nuanced, yet always in danger of homogenized types. The shorthand of making the character “masculine” in nature had long been popular in american film largely because quite simply, males were doing the writing.(re:James Cameron)

    Placing the context with female writers, we are often put in a relatively young realm where the roles are continuously being refined. So when we see certain characterizations of boyish girls, it is often in the service of whatever makes the story move faster. It’s a tough biz, getting those pages cranked out, and it’s often a trap to fall into, making the female lead an almost masculine spirit. And in a time where feminine independence has evolved enormously, the lines to which mangaka define inner strength are consistently being tested.

    And much like Mr. Surat stated, it’s important to consider the varying types of strength we are talking about. Sometimes a mere shield is more comparable to a bulldozer.

    Good post. Hope to see more on the subject!

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  5. One major problem is that anime seem content to force a character’s strength down our throats, and demonstrate it in feeble and obvious ways. That’s somewhat understandable for short series that don’t have time to properly convince us that a character is strong, but then why are they even trying to convince us? Besides, as Daryl puts it there are many facets to strength and people will always disagree on a proper definition. In most cases “strength” just becomes stubbornness.

    Convincing strength requires legitimacy, as well as legitimate weaknesses and flaws. It’s only when we don’t quite realize that a character is “strong” that they’re truly strong. If almost everyone else is simply weak by comparison, like with Shurei in Saiunkoku, then the character isn’t really strong.. we’re just being told they are, and given no basis for thinking otherwise.

    To me, that is the worst offense when trying to portray females as “strong”.. making the males ridiculously weak. For instance, in Spice and Wolf, Lawrence seems weak at first but slowly becomes convincingly stronger, even almost able to keep up with Horo. This in turn makes her seem legitimately strong. Despite the story focusing almost exclusively on both character’s flaws and weaknesses, they are both convincingly “strong” in their own way and yet still convincingly male and female without an over-reliance on tropes.

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  6. Excellent post. I agree that there are a lot of strong female characters in anime if you know where to look. I think fans who watch a good variety of anime are more likely to find them – if you stick with mostly shonen titles, you’ll rarely see strong female characters take the spotlight because these series are targeted towards young boys who are more interested in seeing powerful male characters in action. If you stick with shojo titles, you’ll mostly see “girly,” blushing female characters who melt when it comes to the guys they like because that’s the kind of wish fulfilling story these series give to their target audience of young girls. It’s the more niche anime like Seirei no Moribito (Balsa), Revolutionary Girl Utena (Utena), Kemono no Souja Erin (Erin), Noir (Mireille and Kirika), and others where you’ll likely find them.

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  7. Very interesting post and some very interesting examples discussed so far in the comments. I agree with Daryl that the term ‘strong’ needs a bit more definition/ to be broken down a bit more, but for now I’ll go along with the assumption that it’s primarily ‘physical’ or ‘strength-of-character’. In terms of examples, the other commenters have already mentioned Lady Oscar, Utena, Shuurei etc. as interesting examples, but I’ll throw a couple more into the mix: the cast of Durarara!! and Yuki from Uraboku…

    In the first, there are a range of strong characters with different types of strength; Shizuo Vs Izaya come to mind as the the most overt, ying and yang type example, but there’s also that memorable scene where the shy, quite Mikado turns out to influence huge numbers of ‘ordinary’ single people into acting as an incredibly unit of a sort of non-violent, also contrasts with the violent gangs that also roam the streets of Ikebukoro. In terms of strong females, you’ve got Celty (the supernatural, baddass type) and Anri (the shy, repressed girl…er, also with supernatural powers it turns out, lol), who share many similarities as well as being opposites in other ways…

    In terms of the second, Yuki is the somewhat confusing to explain at first but, er, was-a-girl-in-his-past-life-but-born-as-a-boy-this-time-and-must-fight-alongside-a-team-of-supernatural-powered-young-men-and-women-for-some-reason-or-other (lol), but s/he’s also an interesting example, because Yuki’s ‘power’ is the power to heal and take on other’s pain, and (consequently) is the most powerful one of the lot.

    …I guess the point I’m trying to make, is that, in short, traditional ideas of strength and power, and indeed of traditional gender roles, appear to be questioned by such series. The best characters seem to somehow try and embody the best of ‘both worlds’. Either way, the is-she-really-a-strong-femal-character-or-not debate will not die down anytime soon, but it’s certainly nice to see such ideas and roles questioned and debated.

    Finally, on a personal note, I personally make a song and dance about ‘discovering’ a strong female (main) character in the shows I watch (mainly shoujo, comedy and mystery), becasue most of the female leads (esp in shoujo) tend to be drippy damsels in distress. And despite the ‘questioning’ of roles that I’ve drawn attention to, this is still predominantly the case in largely still very much traditional/ mysogenistic world of anime, where good girls ultimately should conform to acceptable social roles. Thus, this season, I’m currently admiring Maya (Occult Academy) and Misaki (Kaichou wa Maid-sama – on-going from the spring season), though, for the reasons detailed above, probably Maya is a bit more admirable and original.

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  9. When I saw the Alice In Wonderland movie a few months ago, I left the theater feeling disappointed, even though I enjoyed most of the movie. It wasn’t until later that I was able to pinpoint what irked me about it. The filmmakers’ need to take one of English literature’s classic heroines and attempt to “empower” her by throwing her into a finale where she suddenly becomes an Action Hero might have sounded like a genuinely feminist idea on paper, but it felt detrimental to her character and kind of insulting to women in general. Like women can’t be interesting or compelling lead characters — or “strong” in their own way — unless they pick up a weapon, go kick some ass, and basically… BE men.

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  10. 1. Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)

    Strong, but feminine (she likes cute animals… in fact, she likes all animals: cute or otherwise).

    2. Fey Valentine (Cowboy Bebop)

    3. Nina Fortner (Monster)

    Despite the shit she goes through she finishes law school at a prominent university in Germany at the top of her class. She stays un-murdered through the entire series, which is a significant accomplishment.

    4. Otsu and Grandma Hon’iden (Vagabond)

    The grandmother gives MUSASHI headaches.

    5. Mie Iwamoto (Shigurui)

    If you thought the men were emotionally tough….

    6. Yukino Miyazawa (Kare Kano)

    She supports her boyfriend through tough times.

    And the list goes on.

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  11. I love your post! This idea of “strong” female characters has been driving me crazy. Some many other anime fans on other blogs and forums have been putting down shoujo heroine girls just because they don’t pick up a ak-47 and shooting anything in sight. To me true strength comes from a character’s action not how many times they can handle a gun or punch a guy through a wall. that’s why I will always stand by shoujo heroines, meganekko girls, and shy quiet girls because they eximplify what it means to be strong.

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