So this post actually came about because of a twitter meme. You know, one of those “send me a like and I’ll tell you x about myself” type of memes—at least in spirit:
And when a friend asked for “5 favorite female characters” my immediate response was
My Time Has Come
Buuuut….. when I opened my response my mind drew a blank. I could think of one or two, but it was a struggle to think of more.
I mean, I could think of female characters in animation (that was my parameter) but were they really my favorite? Just because I can mention them, just because they’re allowed amongst the masculine majority, doesn’t mean I should automatically adore them. We’ve come further than that.
The thing is, design is driven by conventions, and pop culture by traditional gender. And so we get character designs still vastly inspired by men like Andrew Loomis who spends much more space (~70 pg) on explaining men’s designs than he do3w women (~20). We also get advice in character design books that emphasize convention because that way “characters will be easier to recognize”.
But when you place much more emphasis on male characters they become varied and vibrant; there are a million different designs, and just as many personalities. Whether they are shy or loud, stocky or lean, hopeful or hopeless, there’s a lot more going on with the male characters than with their female counterparts.
So when I thought of female characters I liked in animation, they may be awesome, intelligent and ultimately deserving of their own stories, but sidelined as support or sacrifice (Allura (VLD), Yuni (KHR), Miyazono Kaori (KimiUso)). Worst case scenario they are sidelined even worse as simply there so there aren’t only male characters in the series and as romantic fodder to emphasize our male protagonists’ masculinity (Ace of Diamond, Naruto, and Katekyo Hitman Reborn come to mind).
That doesn’t mean the gems aren’t there in the rubble of “equal” female representation, and here are my six favorite examples:
Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu
(I’m adding this as my 6th option to the original meme because how could I forget FMA?!)
This is possibly the favorite example of many. The cast of female characters is amazingly diverse, from housewives to soldiers to medical prodigies. From white women with power complexes to women of color and disabled. The female characters inspire each other, they follow their own paths, and their relations and decisions play important roles in the development of the plot. Their sorrows and joys are clearly displayed, and they don’t shy away from doing what they think is right in whatever way they are able.
Skip Beat by Nakamura Yoshiki
This one’s a little different from FMA since it has a female main character. Mogami Kyoko’s goal throughout the series is to become an amazing actress so she can take revenge on her childhood friend, who spent their entire childhoods taking advantage of her kindness and naive love for him to treat her as a maid. In the process, she realizes she’s been erasing her own identity to please others, and the series progresses from revenge to concern her character development as an actress, as well as her friendships with other female characters. The series has some of the deepest psychological character construction I’ve ever seen, and it treats all its characters and their plights with respect and empathy. It also has a cast of female characters that actively reject conventional femininity, without abandoning their femininity in the process.
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic by Ootaka Shinobu
(SPOILER ALERT) While the series certainly has its flaws, I want to focus on just the character development of Ren Kougyoku’s character development. Kougyoku’s overall character design is a fantastic mix of whatever she’s found useful: she’s a princess who loves makeup and fashion, at 17 she’s a terrifying debater and diplomat, and a major figure in her nation’s army, as she’s skilled enough to conquer one of the labyrinths of the series which grants her terrifying magical power. She’s also painfully isolated and bad at connecting with others. So when an enemy king grants her the least attention she immediately falls head over heals for him. But this isn’t your conventional Romeo and Juliette romance, for the king takes advantage of her emotions and hypnotizes her to become a spy and a turncoat against her beloved family. When she is eventually freed she’s betrayed her own family and is the only one left alive to take the throne. And much like Kyoko she swears revenge on the man who slighted her. But eventually she realizes that the best revenge she can exact is not to care and she releases herself of his power and influence in a public debate that also releases her nation from the restrictions that had been placed upon it. Her character becomes a message to know your own mind and to trust yourself above the opinions and judgements of others, because you can release yourself from your own abuser.
Akatsuki no Yona by Kusanagi Mizuho
Speaking of breaking away from your abuser, here’s another one! Yona begins her journey as an isolated princess who is in love with her cousin. On the night of her 16th birthday however, he murders her father and sends her and her childhood friend fleeing from the castle. After his betrayal, she meekly follows her childhood friend, grief-stricken and without purpose. But as the series progresses she realises that her father has not done right by their people, and she sets out to work with them in order to better their situation. The series candidly discusses the effects of war and poverty; famine, drug distribution, slavery. And throughout the entire series it is the decisions of the main character, guided by her growing skillset, her empathy, and her intelligence, which drives the plot and sets the story apart.
Oban-Star Racers by Savin Yeatman-Eiffel
This is an older animation (2006), but it’s still absolutely one of my favorite and the animation still keeps up in comparison to current productions! It’s also the sci-fi, character-goes-into-space-on-adventure, series I recommend the most to disappointed Voltron fans. It’s feminist, anti-imperial, there isn’t a single white character in the cast, and it has an amazing female protagonist. Eva Wei, or Molly as she dubs herself, is the daughter of a successful race car manager, confined her to a boarding school when her mother died. After 10 years of waiting 10 years for him to call her just once, she’s had enough, runs away, and becomes a mechanic at his company. However, when an ancient being from the centre of our galaxy challenges Earth to take part in a racing competition, and her father is chosen as the manager to lead the team, she sneaks on board, and due to several plot-related accidents becomes the primary pilot for the Earth team. Molly doesn’t give two cents for what she’s told to do, she’s your regular punk character, but she’s got a kind heart, and it’s her empathy, quick wit, and skill that often wins her the day.
RWBY by Monty Oum
(Art by Einlee on DeviantArt)
The story of Ruby Rose is not entirely your average Chosen One story. The plot constantly hints at that constellation, that the main character is meant to put her life at risk for the sake of a system, but the one in charge of that system—an old, white, straight, rich man—refuses to share that with her. The series spends much of its time emphasizing that much of society, through its militarism, social hierarchy and racism, isn’t really worth saving. It further spends the first half of its plot slowly leading up to Ruby breaking free from the adults determining her fate and growing into somebody who makes her own choices based on her own righteous heart.
What most of these stories have in common are female characters who are incredibly skilled, intelligent and capable of empathy. Thus they avoid the universal argument of biology, and instead stress much more human qualities: the ability to learn, to think for yourself, and to let your emotions and care of other people as well as yourself guide you to do the right thing. Even if that “right thing” goes against conventional knowledge.
Women centric stories end up addressing abuse and manipulation of men, because it’s something we experience a lot in our everyday lives. Women are placed in certain small designs and roles where we “belong” in order not to transgress into the territory and power that men hold over the world. The stories of these women and girls breaking free from that abuse are also metaphors for how women are able to break free from patriarchal truths about the world. They’re inspiring and important, and we see more and more of them in fiction! But we can still get further!