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.