Female Representation in Anime
By Zahra Siddiqui
As someone who can appreciate anime for the unique themes and genres that you don’t usually see in western media, I struggle to find anime with relatable or well-written female characters. Nearly every time I start a new piece of media, an element that significantly influences my decision to consume it is whether the audience finds the female characters interesting. Now obviously, an excellent female character isn’t the only important factor in a story to be engaging. However, if the author can prove that they can write not only compelling characters but compelling women, then I tend to trust their writing abilities much more.
As someone who’d consider themself a fan of anime, there are a lot of very popular ones that I avoid simply because of the reputation it has for its women. Anyone outside the anime world has probably heard of Naruto, Sword Art Online, and Fairy Tale. I am not in any way comparing these stories to each other or their levels of writing, but their female characters have all been known to lack depth and dimension. They are also shows that I started and dropped very early on because I couldn’t see myself in any of the female characters.
One thing that these three anime have in common (in regards to their female characters) is that the writers inadvertently utilize a “tell don’t show” technique by telling the audience that the women are actually very powerful, but they never show this because the male characters are constantly given the spotlight. This forces the female characters to be reduced into a healer and/or damsel in distress and/or love interest archetype, with no real goals or personality.
When writing a character, I believe it’s important to make every aspect of them significant to their personality. If I say a character prefers vegetables over fast food, you might think that they are concerned with staying healthy. Or if I say a character has circles under their eyes, you may assume that they don’t get much sleep. Or if I say a character likes to draw, they could be a very creative spirit. If a character is younger, they’ll be more naive. If a character wears sweatpants everywhere, then they probably prefer comfort over fashion. If a character that you write is a woman, there needs to be significance to that. What is your intention in writing this character as a female? What assumptions will audiences draw simply from the fact that this character is a woman?
I do want to acknowledge that there’s much better representation nowadays than there has been before, and this is true for media outside of anime as well. Fullmetal Alchemist (both the original and the reboot) and Jujutsu Kaisen (specifically in the manga) have some of the best female characters I’ve seen in a long time. Every single one has their own ambitions, personalities, and specialties that make them feel fleshed out and authentic. They were able to stand out with the other male characters and added to the story without becoming a tool for it. Though I have a few qualms with the female characters in Attack on Titan, there were so many undeniable standout scenes for the women to showcase their strength and development throughout the series.
One reason in particular why I think Fullmetal Alchemist female characters are the best in anime is the fact that the author is a woman. Arakawa has first-hand experience, and this only added to her writing quality. Obviously, I don’t think men can’t write women properly, but it’s usually much easier to write what you know, and if what you know is the male experience, then the men will be much better written. This is evident in most shounen anime as they are usually written by males, for males.
If an author doesn’t know how to write female characters, then I’d rather they make an all-male cast rather than create a poorly-written woman just for the sake of having one. Both Hunter x Hunter and Haikyuu!! are fantastic stories with wonderful characters that have very limited female casts. This limitation does not at all make the stories less compelling, and I still found ways to connect with and enjoy the male characters because I wasn’t distracted by how awfully the women were written.
There are so many more concerns to discuss when it comes to female characters in anime: specifically fanservice and over-sexualization that feels very out-of-place and uncomfortable, as well as tsundere and yandere gimmicks that restrict characters within a certain parameter. These exact issues are why some women will shy away from becoming fully invested in an anime and why anime has a reputation for being weird or gross. In general, the problems in female representation in anime are so talked about because they have become so repetitive and exhausting to see.