Lessons from Attack on Titan: How to Write a Shonen Series Without Throwing Women Under the Bus

Several years ago, I was venting my frustrations about Naruto to a friend of mine. My biggest complaint was that there are too many underdeveloped characters and all of the women are ultimately sidelined no matter how powerful other characters say they are. His response was “Well, it’s shonen. It’s supposed to focus on the boys.”

At the time, I had no rebuttal because as far as I knew, such casual sexism was just an inherent part of the shonen genre and there was nothing I could do except lower my expectations and hope that series like Naruto and Bleach could at least keep me interested with compelling stories (spoilers: they couldn’t. They’re both still running when they should’ve ended ages ago).

This conversation happened before I discovered series like 20th Century Boys (not shonen, but still focused on men) and Soul Eater (a popular shonen where the main character is female). Now, I can confidently say that the lackluster characterization of many women in many shonen series is, at the very least, a symptom of bad writing which may result from the creators “not knowing how to write women” because of whatever ingrained ideas they may have about women. It seems to me that poorly written female characters happen because their creators have this notion that women are so fundamentally different from them that they really don’t know what to give their leading ladies besides crushes on their male heroes or some other shallow character development. Many of these creators may not even know that they’re doing this, but that’s the tricky part about the kyriarchy. So much of this stuff is invisible and subconsciously ingrained in our minds.

Shonen is not my preferred genre. On most days, I’ll pick a slice-of-life moe series about high school girls over yet another mediocre shonen epic, but when people on Tumblr started freaking out about Attack on Titan, I knew that it had to be worth watching and, because Tumblr liked it, I figured that it was likely less problematic than other shows.

From the first episode, I was hooked. Not since Puella Magi Madoka Magica aired back in 2011 has an anime impressed me so much from the very beginning. Not only is Attack on Titan a compelling, albeit dark story, but it also gives all of its characters proper development. The women are especially impressive and yet the series is still very much about Eren, the male protagonist. This shows that, in the hands of a good storyteller, a story about a boy does not (and should not) give its female characters the short end of the stick.

Actual Badass Mikasa Ackerman

The only time this girl gets hurt in the whole anime is the cut on her cheek. Good Lord.

Mikasa is by far the most impressive female character in any shonen that I’ve seen or read thus far. She doesn’t exist to be Eren’s love interest (although her obvious feelings for him fuel her motivation to be the most precise Titan slasher in her class) nor is she ever sidelined once Eren’s Titan transformation powers come to light. Not only are we told that Mikasa is one of the best soldiers humanity has seen, we’re also shown this time and time again. Mikasa never hesitates to enter the fray, especially if she knows that Eren is in danger.

In many other shonen series, the main female character will be talked up as the smartest or most precise, but then we hardly see her in action. For example, Sakura from Naruto is consistently touted as having the best chakra control, but that skill doesn’t translate into any battle for a long, long, long, long, extremely long time. However, with Mikasa, we see her skills first and then other characters state things like “she’s worth 100 soldiers.” Such statements have more of an impact because the audience has already seen her in action.

Really, it’s a case of showing and not telling, but many people seem to have a problem showing their female characters’ badassery. I’m not satisfied when you tell me that Sakura has the best chakra control in her class, especially since the way her character is handled seems to be “oh, let me show that I’m not sexist for a few chapters and then go back to the way more important boys.” No, that doesn’t fly with me. What flies with me is when all characters that are introduced play an important role in the larger story and that’s exactly what Attack on Titan has done so far. Yes, Eren is still the super special awesome main character, but Mikasa isn’t weakened for the sake of making his Titan powers seem more awesome. In so many other shonen series, the girls have to be described as “strong,” but are always portrayed as weak in comparison to the extremely powerful boys. So far, Attack on Titan has avoided this problem and I hope it continues to do so.

However, the one caveat to Mikasa’s character is that her entire development as a person is based on her feelings for Eren. If this were Naruto, then Eren would be her savior who is always there to protect her, but this is not the case. Even in Mikasa’s dramatic backstory, Eren only assists her in making her final decisions. In the end, it’s Mikaksa who decides to take matters into her own hands and kill one of the men who were going to sell her into prostitution. Yes, Eren encouraged her and he helped her out, but he never made the choice for her. It’s completely Mikasa’s decision to be Eren’s protector, although Eren’s mother sort of bound her to that task. Her feelings for him make this more natural, but I think that she is still an independent character despite this. In fact, we’re given a moment where we see what she could potentially become if Eren actually died.

She’s borderline emotionless, so her coping mechanism is to get the job done.

Episode 5 is traumatizing to say the least. The events leave us with an apparently dead shonen protagonist and enough time passes before his revival to make me think that maybe Attack on Titan is to shonen what Puella Magi Madoka Magica is to mahou shoujo. In this interlude, we see what Mikasa could become without her primary motivation–what would happen to her if, in her eyes, she failed to fulfill her mission of protecting Eren. What she could potentially become is someone who embodies both her own failure to fulfill what she understands as her mission and someone who fulfills Eren’s dream of destroying all the Titans. Although it doesn’t come to this, seeing this potential in Mikasa is extremely important because it shows how she could still retain some semblance of her strength in Eren’s absence. If he were killed off for good, she would continue his mission in a heartbeat. We know this because we’re shown several instances in which she almost goes rogue for his sake. These moments give us a glimpse into a post-Eren Mikasa. What is this girl capable of when she has no remaining reasons to stay loyal to the powers that be?

It certainly seems that Mikasa’s character development is centered around her feelings for Eren. This is an important part of her character, but I think we’re shown that she has her own strength aside from that. She uses her feelings as motivation to be the best soldier that she can be–to grow strong in her own right and be the person in control when Eren is in Titan mode and can’t fully control what he does. As the protagonist, Eren wants to ultimately surpass her protection, but he never justifies this desire by even remotely suggesting that it’s his duty as a man to protect Mikasa. Gender roles really don’t seem to be part of his understanding of the world at all. The only reason why Eren gets annoyed with Mikasa is simply because he doesn’t want anyone to sacrifice themselves to protect him. He wants to master his powers so that others don’t have to fall in harm’s way for him. That’s it. He never uses perceived gender roles as an excuse for why Mikasa shouldn’t protect him anymore. For him, surpassing Mikasa is just surpassing an older sibling or a mentor and it never occurs to him to use her gender against her.

It’s this balance that makes Mikasa Ackerman a quality female character, one that I think many writers can learn from. The series does not need to be about Mikasa for her to be a strong character. All it needs to do is show where she came from, where she could go, and how she grows, which is exactly what it does, all while still maintaining the status quo that Eren is the one with the most unique abilities.

Annie Leonhart: The Unexpected Villainess

 

I’d make a witty Russian joke here, but they’re probably spying on this blog.

Maybe I’m gullible, but I totally didn’t expect Annie to be the female-type Titan that was attacking everyone in the Survey Corps. The anime sort of makes you forget about her for a little bit and paints Mikasa as a possible suspect since you don’t see her for a long time after the female-type Titan first appears. What’s great about Annie is not only that she’s a surprise antagonist, but also that Eren’s reluctance to fight her is never a matter of perceived gender roles. His biggest hesitation about fighting her is not that she’s a woman, but that she’s his classmate. He wants to deeply trust her because of the whole nakama concept. Challenging that notion is a struggle because Annie is clearly not completely on humanity’s side, but Eren doesn’t understand why. What’s especially interesting is that Annie tries to use stereotypical gender expectations to throw him off just moments before she reveals that she is the female-type Titan. In trying to convince Eren that she shouldn’t go into the dark, underground tunnel, she says something along the lines of how she’s a weak female who can’t handle such a scary place. However, Eren calls bullshit on that because he’s seen first-hand how strong Annie is. In this case, Annie is trying to appeal to some form of internalized sexism to prevent Eren and the others from figuring out who she really is. Again, it appears that typical gender roles and expectations just aren’t part of Eren’s understanding, which is why he doesn’t believe what Annie tells him. Really, they don’t seem to be part of anyone’s understanding in the entire series.

The final battle of the anime between Eren and Annie in their Titan forms could’ve been disastrous from a feminist standpoint. Any other writer, in my opinion and experience, would’ve made Eren show some discomfort at the idea of fighting a woman or would’ve used Eren’s Titan anger as justification for him to say some very misogynistic things in this conflict. Even Mikasa could’ve perpetuated some internalized misogyny when she tries to show Eren that he absolutely needs to fight Annie. However, none of these things happen. Any other shonen epic would have fallen into one of those traps, but Attack on Titan does not. Eren’s fight with Annie is epic, awesome, and not really sexualized in any way whatsoever. It’s a fight between two giant monsters and expected gender roles have no part in it.

The Lesson for Writers

Folks, this is how it’s done. The secret to writing good stories with diverse characters isn’t tokenism, but quality. The inclusion of women in Naruto, Bleach, and other shonen series seems forced, whereas the inclusion of women in Attack on Titan seems necessary. This is because Attack on Titan is being told by someone who understands how to make all of his characters important to the larger story. He doesn’t let any notions of “femaleness” get in the way of how he writes his characters. I won’t go as far as to say that gender doesn’t matter. It does. A lot. In fact, Mikasa’s experience as a woman is a large part of her backstory in that she was about to be sold into sex slavery had Eren not arrived in time. To the men who were ready to sell her, her femaleness made her valuable as a sexual object, which is a reflection of our own world in which such problems disproportionally affect women.

The Manga Seems to Promise More

My one reservation about Attack on Titan at the moment is that it’s still in its early stages as far as shonen epics go. At 50something chapters as of this writing, it’s practically brand new. However, in the moments where I expect to feel jaded by the manga, I’m pleasantly surprised. What I’m seeing is that Hajime Isayama is using characters that he’s already created and weaving them into the twists and turns of the world. Where Kishimoto would’ve invented a brand new character, Isayama does what any competent writer would do and works an existing minor character into the latest drama. I can only hope that Attack on Titan continues to be an excellent story and that it comes to an end before its popularity turns it into another cash cow.

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9 thoughts on “Lessons from Attack on Titan: How to Write a Shonen Series Without Throwing Women Under the Bus

  1. I’ve seen a lot of talk on Tumblr about Attack on Titan, but I’ve been hesitant to learn more about it as it seems like it could be very emotionally intense. This post is a point in favor of my getting into it, though.

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    1. Glad you liked it! I would say that as far as shonen epics go, Attack on Titan is the most gender balanced (as far as quality of characters) and least sexualized. In fact, I haven’t seen a single instance of fan service, even in the manga.

      It IS a very intense show, however. It’s also pretty graphic when people get killed. The first five episodes are the roughest if you don’t know the story at all because the situation is so bleak. There were many times early on when I wondered if this was a deconstruction of the shonen genre, but now that I’m caught up with manga, I can say that it’s solidly shonen.

      If the anime continues, there’s a great, albeit depressing subplot about two queer characters. I may write a post about it once more of it comes to fruition.

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  2. I know this comment is quite late, but durig the last few Attack on Titan manga chapters Krista went through alot of character developpment. She is, in my opinion, the most memorable character in AOT, being very realistic and layered.

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  3. It’s funny I saw this. I thought Mikasa should have been the main character. Regardless, I stopped reading the manga the moment Eren got chewed up alive, knowing he’s going to get brought back to life. If you do something like that so early in a story, you’ve made the possibilities endless within the lore and there’s just no point in reading.

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    1. Yeah, I honestly haven’t kept up with the manga, but I’ll watch the second season when it airs. I know exactly what you mean, though. I think Attack on Titan will/already is the next shonen epic cash cow, so it’ll just keep trying to outdo itself.

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  4. I’d go further than just anime with this – regardless of format, genre, or sub-genre I’ve always been of the opinion that strong female characters aren’t just good for reasons of feminism and equality …. it’s just good storytelling. If you don’t have complex, interesting and strong female characters that go beyond the stereotypes, then you’re just failing as a writer/creator.

    I loved the first arc of Sword Art Online’s ‘Asuna’ for this same reason, strong female lead and romantic interest but with independence from Kirito … she had her own life to live and that just happened to intersect with the main protagonist. Also she kicked arse all on her own.
    Arguably the series went to shit the same time that Asuna’s character got turned into a helpless sap who needed saving from the antagonist in the second half of the first season and I hated everything after this change because all of it was just poorly written.

    Loved reading this piece. Thanks

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