My response to “Attack on Titan: Mikasa Ackerman is Not a Feminist Heroine”, an article with which I overall disagree. The lines I quoted from the article are italicized; they are mostly the parts that address Mikasa.
“Attack on Titan has garnered a reputation as a feminist anime, one that I don’t believe is entirely deserved. It’s true that it has many feminist-friendly elements to it, but it is also deeply problematic in many ways. After so much build up, I admit I was disappointed by what it had to offer.
In a perfect world, the feminist-friendly parts of Attack on Titan would barely merit mention. Unfortunately, we live in a highly sexist, imperfect world, so I’ll discuss them anyway. Most of the equitable treatment of women comes from the show being set around the military. Yes, that’s right. In fantasy pseudo-Europe, women are treated more fairly within the military than in most modern-day nations. Their uniforms are identical and the girls are just as capable, physically and mentally, as the boys, if not more so. Male characters, thus far, have been more prone to open displays of extreme emotion. Usually, even in manga that have prominent female characters who are ostensibly on equal ground with the men, they lack physical strength or behave in stereotypically feminine ways, and Attack on Titan has none of that behavior. There hasn’t even been a whiff of fan service – although there is official art of Mikasa baring her midriff, it was drawn in a way to show off her raw physical power, not to titillate.”
“It is notable that, despite the unusually equal gender distribution among the new recruits and, to a lesser extent, the middle ranks of the military, the upper levels are still completely dominated by men. In the early episodes, when the protagonists are still children, there are no female soldiers to be seen. Furthermore, though we get only a few glimpses into civilian life, those that we do see follow traditional gender roles very strongly. Eren’s father works as a doctor, while his mother cares for the house. Mikasa’s mother teaches her a form of embroidery passed down in the family. It is my understanding that the manga is slightly different, with more visible women in the military even before the timeskip and Mikasa’s mother giving her a clan tattoo. I don’t know why the director Tetsuro Araki decided to make these changes, but considering his poor track record with depicting women, I consider it very suspect.”
I agree that it’s amazing Mikasa isn’t drawn with a traditionally feminine shape, because you need insane core and leg strength to operate those 3D maneuvering devices. It wouldn’t make sense for her to not be ripped. I also agree that those changes to civilian life you mentioned were likely made in poor taste by the director. However, to be fair, Attack on Titan already has a plethora of women who break traditional gender roles, so showing some women who stick to them isn’t that bad of media representation, either. It’s not a bad thing to take care of the house or to teach your daughter embroidery, and by implying that those depictions should be entirely removed is sort of like telling girls who might actually prefer those types of activities that they shouldn’t want to do stuff like that.
And this is coming from me, an asexual female writer who is a racial minority, studying physics and mathematics – overwhelmingly male-dominated subjects. I have never experienced media representation of anyone like me (when have you ever seen an asexual racial minority female character?), and I doubt that I ever will. Yet despite that reality, there are still some fictional women who I do like…although that list is very tiny. Before I was introduced to Mikasa, there were very few female characters who positively captured my interest (in fact, I could list them right now. Cersei Lannister and the Type-Moon heroines). “Relatable” and “feminist” are not labels I give out lightly, but Mikasa Ackerman deserves it.
“Equal treatment of women and no objectification isn’t inherently feminist; it’s really the bare minimum that media should be held to, and it’s saddening that it’s uncommon enough that it is celebrated when it occurs.”
Feminism advocates for equality of the sexes. If you don’t think equal treatment of a sex (and no objectification) is inherently feminist, then how exactly are you defining feminism? I think it’s important to at least vaguely describe what your definition of “feminist” is. I also noticed that in the comments, you said the dictionary meaning of feminist isn’t enough to cover the entire movement. I agree with that statement, but I also think it makes it necessary for you to define what exactly YOU mean by feminist. Because most people are naturally going to go by the dictionary definition.
“The single biggest point of contention for me in whether or not Attack on Titan can be considered feminist or not is the character Mikasa Ackerman. Mikasa is the physically strongest of the human cast, highly protective of Eren, and a keen strategist. She is also not in any way, shape, or form, a feminist character.
At a glance, she has great potential to be one, and even seems to be. After all, she’s at the top of her training class: their instructor even admits that her combat skills are flawless. She is a keen strategist on top of her physical brilliance, and shows none of the flightiness or over-emotionality that the female segment of the standard shonen trio tends to have, such as Sakura from Naruto or Orihime of Bleach. The idea of Mikasa as the damsel in distress is unthinkable; it’s in fact far easier to conceive of her as the rescuer, since that is the role she is most prone to play.
All that is spoiled by the fact that she has no inner life or emotional depth outside of her extreme devotion to Eren. Despite her brilliance, she is prepared to follow Eren anywhere. When it appeared that Eren was completely incapable of handling the three-dimensional gear and was doomed to wash out and be forced to work the reclaimed land – implied to be little better than a death sentence – Mikasa was entirely prepared to follow him. This wasn’t too off-putting on its own. After all, he had saved her life when they were young, and she had been by his side ever since. That she was devoted, even to the point of self-sacrifice, seemed only natural.
Alright, here we go.
If your idea of a feminist character includes someone who is purely self-motivated, then yeah, Mikasa is not yet a feminist character. But to me, and to a lot of people, a feminist character is a human character who isn’t one-dimensional. Mikasa may not be complex in terms of her personality or motivations, but she is relatable. Someone who has strengths and weaknesses and is defined by more than superficial aspects like physical appearance.
Taking a look at Mikasa:
There is more to her than her unconditional love for Eren. If there wasn’t, people wouldn’t waste time arguing about her fighting skills or her intelligence vs her recklessness. But they do.
Strengths: She is a physical prodigy who fights so well that she is worth a HUNDRED soldiers. Not only is she naturally gifted, but she trains extremely hard to keep her fitness levels high. The captain notes Mikasa to be an unprecedented genius, and she is very focused and cool-headed — an attribute which Armin comments is her usual state.
Weaknesses: Her oratory skills are horrible, as Jean once said. Because of her aloof demeanor, she is not the most charismatic leader.
Her greatest weakness comes from her tragic childhood: she is too attached to Eren. But I think there is a key point you are missing here. Mikasa’s borderline obsession with Eren is not exhibited in the show as something people should necessarily strive for. Levi scolds her for behaving selfishly and impulsively when it comes to Eren; Jean berates her for expecting everyone to be as willing as her to die for Eren’s sake; even Eren himself yells at her to stop being so overprotective of him.
If the fact that Mikasa fights with the most passion when she is trying to protect Eren bothers you as un-feminist then I don’t know… It seems like a double standard from your side, because all over television, plenty of male characters fight with passionate rage when it comes to their friends and family. It’s a pretty natural thing to do.
“Mikasa’s semi-arc during the Battle of Trost was what clinched her failings as a feminist, or even feminist-friendly character. Up until she hears of Eren’s death, Mikasa shows great leadership throughout the battle: forcing a greedy merchant to move his overloaded cart and let people through, giving inspirational speeches, and so on. When her fuel runs out, Mikasa simply… gives up. Without Eren, she has no will to live. Even when a titan comes to attack, she moves only involuntarily.”
You see, most human beings DO feel like utterly giving up when they lose someone they love. Mikasa lost her birth parents, she lost her adoptive parents, and then she heard that her only remaining adoptive family member was dead (episode 7). She lost everyone and everything. Why would anyone rationally expect her to get over Eren’s death within minutes and then suddenly find self-motivation? That would be typical Mary Sue behavior; in other words, completely unrealistic. I wouldn’t find a character who suddenly gets over all her obstacles in the most perfect, idealized way, to be all that feminist or humanized. It makes sense that after hearing Eren has died, Mikasa is going to think of their memories together. He’s not just some boy she likes because he’s handsome and nice or something; he is the friend/brother/whatever who saved her from sex trafficking and taught her how to fight. Mikasa losing her will to live yet deciding to not give up so that she can at least remember Eren — sure, that’s not the most ideal reason to live, but it’s a realistic reaction. She’s written to be a traumatized human being who is attached to one or two people — you even wrote earlier in the article that her self-sacrificial devotion is understandable. Besides, her post-Eren existential crisis occurred in only the seventh episode of the first season.
“I did not find Mikasa’s instinctively dodging the titan’s attacks inspirational or touching. It leads to the realization that she wants to survive, yes, but only so that she can continue to remember Eren.”
Her instinctively dodging the Titan’s attacks wasn’t supposed to be all that inspirational per se. It was one of the sadder moments of the show, watching someone who felt so broken that it was their involuntary reflexes that were forcing her to live, not even her own desire. Furthermore, it was supposed to show that even if a loved one is dead, they never really leave us. Their lessons are still there in our hearts (ie: Mikasa recalling Eren telling her to fight). Again, this occurs early on in season one — Mikasa was and still is a 15 year old child suffering from the effects of trauma. As someone who has multiple close relatives who suffer/ have suffered from PTSD, I can assure you that Mikasa’s behavior is not atypical, and it is always touching to see one of them feel encouraged again…even when that motivation comes solely from remembering a friend or lover.
“After this, her character arc stalls out.”
I agree, to a certain extent. I’ll follow up with the next couple paragraphs.
“Eren, in titan form, rescues her and is soon revealed to be himself.”
Yes, and Mikasa holds him in her arms and listens to his heartbeat with tears in her eyes because the person she thought was dead, the adoptive brother she loves most in the world, is actually alive. This was an important emotional reaction. Again, it didn’t make her weak; on the contrary, it made her relatable, as opposed to poorly-written characters whose feelings and responses are ridiculously contrived. Mikasa’s affection for Eren is what humanizes her, just like Levi’s affection for Isabel, Petra, and all the people he has lost is what humanizes him. Without these relationships, both of them would just be another “serious, emotionless badass”.
“Mikasa soon disappears quietly into the background, surfacing only occasionally to lend support to him. Had her epiphany been a part of a larger character arc, Mikasa’s survival could have been truly something great. Without Eren, Mikasa would have had to learn how to stand on her own emotionally and find her own reasons for living. Even with Eren alive, she could have realized that living only for the sake of another person is unhealthy and struggled to figure out her own motivations and desires. But instead, she gets him back and proceeds to disappear quietly into the background, playing only bit parts in the ensuing story arcs.
The Female Titan arc also has potential, but that too is wasted. Annie Leonhart was, to me, the most potentially fascinating character of the series: mysterious, cynical, and pragmatic, but with unexpected soft spots, such as Armin’s faith in her. Nonetheless, due to the show’s poor pacing, her arc is cut off unceremoniously, and it’s impossible to tell whether or not she is a strong or well-written character.”
I agree with certain parts of this. The series certainly should have focused a bit more on Mikasa’s arc after Eren’s “resurrection”. As for Annie, I think the whole point was that she was supposed to be mysterious the first season and that you’ll learn more about her as you go along. Plenty of other shows have ambiguous male characters who are shrouded in mystery until later on. Like you said, it’s too early to tell whether she is a strong character.
“Her titan form’s design did bother me: although the fanservice wasn’t to the point of being excessive, she was still completely idealized, albeit without skin, and at times the camera lingered too lovingly on her sculpted ass, perfect breasts, and symmetrical, delicately feminine features. Contrasted with the monstrous masculine titans, the effect is wholly incongruous and shows a clear double-standard.”
Your choice of pictures is quite misleading; I could do same thing the other way around.
You conveniently fail to mention or show that Eren’s titan form was also idealized. If you watch any “Attack on Titan reaction” videos on YouTube, half of the viewers’ reactions to seeing Eren-Titan for the first time was: “Damn! This titan is JACKED and looks so cool!”. The camera lingers lovingly on Eren-Titan’s perfect abs, bulging triceps, and raw masculine features, just as it lingers on Annie’s “sculpted ass, perfect breasts”, etc. I hope you also realize that these “special” titans (ie: Eren and Annie) are clearly supposed to look somewhat like the human inside them. Eren’s Titan face makes perfect sense for someone who is always angry like he is, whereas Annie’s looks more reserved and almost sad…which suits her and her lone wolf personality. I suppose it could have been scarier, but her face was still unnerving enough (especially the eye area).
“Attack on Titan is not the worst, most misogynistic, or most objectifying show of 2013, it’s true. Not by a long shot. Still, considering all the hype, it was a titanic disappointment.”
It was only one season of a show that intends to cover a much larger manga. The characters still have time to grow, and they will.
Mikasa’s attachment to Eren is a defining aspect of who she is, but it is equally important that she is emotionally closed-off (even merciless) and a genius prodigy — the most skilled fighter of her age. The show did a pretty nice job of showing all these sides.
“Mikasa is not an isolated case, but one of thousands of female characters whose lives revolve solely around the male character.”
This was not in your article but was one of your comments.
I’m curious…if Eren was female instead of male, would you have the same complaints about Mikasa? A lot of people who criticize female characters that are devoted to a male character do not mind at all if she is devoted to another female character (apparently, being devoted to a male character is demeaning but being devoted to a fellow woman is “empowerment”). In which case, it’s not Mikasa’s emotional attachment that bothers you, it’s the fact that her attachment is to a boy.
I find it disheartening that if your goal is to protect someone else, then it is somehow not feminist. Such loyalty CAN be non-feminist, but it is not automatically so. Mikasa is a brilliant soldier because of a COMBINATION of her own exceptional abilities, hard work, and desire to protect Eren. If Mikasa quickly became a perfectly self-driven, Titan-slaying leader, then she would be essentially flawless. I agree that you shouldn’t consider Mikasa feminist just because she is in the military and isn’t objectified… but you should consider her feminist because she has prominent strengths and weaknesses and is considered an equal to men (actually, she is physically superior to every soldier of every gender on the show except Levi).
If people are able to have all sorts of debates on Mikasa (a female) vs Levi (a male), in which they talk about their fighting abilities and the strengths and weaknesses of their personalities… how is she not a feminist character?
If a female character is able to hold her own in types of discussions that are generally dominated by male characters, and that too because of non-superficial reasons, how is she not feminist?
Now, I actually started off as someone who didn’t find Mikasa to be that feminist. But after casting aside my prejudiced notion that “feminist characters shouldn’t be motivated by their undying loyalty to someone else”, I realized I was wrong. In fact, I’m quite positive that if Mikasa was Eren’s mother, brother, or even biological sister, very few would complain about her “obsession”; instead, it would be seen as a great bromance or motherly/sisterly love. And I think that highlights an even bigger problem with how women are perceived. A strong bond between two male friends is often celebrated, but an unshakable bond between a boy and a girl that actually makes sense is… criticized? Why not acknowledge the egalitarian merits of both? Especially considering Mikasa is a girl who constantly has to save the male character, when it is usually depicted as the other way around in fiction. She plays the role of a “strong, protective man”, and that promotes equality in its own right. Calling Mikasa a character who is ” not feminist-friendly” and saying she is a female whose life revolves around a male is vastly oversimplified, because that would also put her in the same group as a fictional girl who is superficially obsessed with a boy and always needs him to save her. But as you stated yourself, Mikasa is the farthest thing from a damsel in distress, so clearly she is nothing like those other female characters.
You also say representation matters, and I am in complete agreement…because the type of person Mikasa represents is what made me realize that even though I personally tend to be logic-oriented and aloof, I should still emotionally and genuinely value the few friendships I do have. Even though I am weak and skinny, I relate with Mikasa’s colder personality and actually felt motivated to build muscle after witnessing her raw physical power. Seeing that type of representation helped me grow as a person. So to dismiss Mikasa as non-feminist because of her devotion to someone seems highly reductive.
I do agree that little girls shouldn’t have to watch TV shows where they might get the impression that women’s lives only revolve around men. I could understand how they might get that impression from Mikasa at first glance, only because they are too young to dig deeper. But Attack on Titan is rated 18+; it is decidedly not for children. The gratuitous bloodshed and language makes sure of that. Given the target audience, the characterization is naturally going to be more grey and subtle. Criticizing Mikasa for not being more of an obvious feminist would be like me criticizing Arya Stark of A Song of Ice and Fire (the book source of Game of Thrones) for not being feminist since on the surface, she is just a traumatized, empty shell motivated by a crazed obsession instead of a healthy personal drive. Or even Brienne of Tarth from the same show, a masculine-built and honorable female knight whose primary goal was to protect Renly Baratheon, a man. Yet not a single person I know has argued that fierce little tomboy Arya or badass Brienne are anything but feminist characters. Why?
Because in Arya’s case, for example, the audience members are mature enough to recognize both her strengths (she shatters every expectation of a “proper lady”, fights with a sword and survives in a patriarchal medieval society, and is deeply loyal to her loved ones) and her weaknesses – her temper, recklessness, and unhealthy obsession. Arya’s obsession with avenging her loved ones (almost all of which are male friends and relatives) doesn’t prevent her from being feminist as she has enough other gender-stereotype-defying qualities that this one weakness only makes her more human. Her obsession is only a single aspect of who she is, even if it is what motivates her the most. Characters who are primarily motivated by others aren’t solely defined by this motivation as long as they have their own interesting abilities and strengths that are more than their looks. The prodigious Mikasa Ackerman certainly has her own abilities and strengths, does she not?
Your average 4-year-old daughter is not going to be exposed to Attack on Titan any more than she would be to Game of Thrones, and if she was, then it would likely just be seeing pictures and such…in which Mikasa would only serve as a good role model, as she is never objectified, unlike the vast majority of movie posters/promotions with hyper-sexualized women.
In addition, I have never cared for any fictional opposite-sex or same-sex friendships or relationships before since they never really made me feel anything and it didn’t make sense to me why half of them were infatuated with each other in the first place. However, Eren and Mikasa’s complicated relationship, along with Armin, is something I actually find believable. If she was obsessed with Eren for no good reason, then I would not consider her feminist. But her love for him makes sense given the horrors she went through as a child. It doesn’t matter to me if their bond is familial, platonic, or romantic – it’s powerful, and it’s there.