What makes a good, solid character? This is a question with numerous answers, incorporating everything from personality, placement in a story, character design, and even positioning within a still frame. Given some thought, I'm sure many of you reading can think of someone whom you admire - perhaps several. Not "like", mind you. The keyword is admire. What I'd like you to think about is how many of those characters you thought of are female. Let's narrow it down. How many of those female characters are the protagonists of their canons? Now, how many of them were not drawn or unnecessarily placed in compromising, sexual positions at some point? Not many, right? Finding examples of strong, female protagonists who aren't also there to draw wandering gazes is like unearthing a diamond from muck. Once you find one, you'd better clutch it tight because you don't know if you'll find another.
But this article is not about fanservice, nor is it a rant about the sexualisation of women in anime - it's the opposite, in fact. This article is going to celebrate what makes some female characters worthy of being admired. Not for who they are or what they do necessarily, but for what they represent in visual media. These women of course are only a tiny sample in an ever-growing pool of characters who are added every season, every year. There are possibly more or even better examples that deserve recognition out there, but the following are those whom I personally appreciate.
Fujiko Mine from Lupin III
First off is the primary femme fatale of action thief adventure series, Lupin the Third. Fujiko Mine is a bold, confident thief who isn't afraid to use her looks and guile to deceive the owners of her targets. Like Lupin, Jigen, and Goemon, she's capable of operating independently just as well as she is capable of working in tandem with them. Most notably, none of them consider her as a person less than themselves even though her main weapon is seduction, and all four operate under mutual respect for one another.
Despite how Fujiko flaunts her appearance, her character isn't defined by it. Her beauty is a weapon - the same as the gun she carries. Normally I would say that this would cheapen her character, but Fujiko is an example of a woman who is sexual, not sexualised. She's never placed in a compromising position during her appearances. Even though Lupin (and sometimes other men) may pursue her romantically, she rebuffs them and doesn't allow them to treat her like a trophy. Furthermore, although she is definitely depicted as a seductive woman, her series does not pull cheap stunts like ripped clothing in order to satisfy the gaze of a male audience (Shokugeki no Souma and K are amongst the most recent I can name and shame for this treatment). Fujiko may have quite some assets of her own, but these are never on display. As a result, she is always shown to be in control of her own sexuality and her own body at any given time.
Lupin: "You let Fujiko go."
Akechi: "Yeah, so what? What can a small fry like her do?"
Lupin: "I wouldn't underestimate Fujiko. You might pay for it with your life."
-- Episode 21 of Lupin III (2015)
Although Fujiko frequently shows up where the series' namesake, Lupin, goes, she never requires anyone's (least of all a man's) help to rescue her from dire situations. If anything, she is the one helping Lupin out of his trouble. This woman is just as tricky and clever as the foremost main characters and is an excellent example of how a strong, sexy female character can be written and shown.
Revy from Black Lagoon
This dual-gun-wielding gal is, in terms of personality, well on the opposite end compared to Fujiko. Revy is coarse, blunt, and violent to everyone not within her immediate circle (and it takes a hell of a lot to make it in there to begin with). There is no doubt that this entire series deals with profanity and some blatant sexual humour, but Revy and not a few other women are more likely to be the ones dishing out such insults instead of the men.
Revy earns her place here by being a woman who does not flaunt herself like Fujiko yet who still takes charge. She has a range of psychological issues thanks to her rough past, most of which account for the personality that we see throughout the series. The admirable thing about how she is represented, knowing this, is that she is hardly ever exploited by framing. There are admittedly several instances where gratuitous shots are used, yet unlike other examples of fanservice, such scenes suit the implied vulgarity of the world depicted in Black Lagoon. If there's any setting where nudity would not be out of place, it's this anime.
Even though it can't be said that she's a good female role model due to how she copes with her childhood abuse, Revy is nevertheless someone who demonstrates that women aren't simply objects of pleasure for men.
We now move from the above two sexual icons to the other end of the scale. This girl is by far my favourite girl of the year: Shirayuki from Akagami no Shirayuki-hime (a.k.a Snow White with the Red Hair). This powerful protagonist is someone who takes charge of her destiny regardless of the wishes and prejudice of those around her. Quite a few series with couples make the mistake of claiming a woman is capable while then making her dependent on another (usually male) character. It's especially true in the shoujo genre where the female is typically reliant upon her male counterpart. That's not the case with Shirayuki.
After her striking red hair, characters who meet her frequently comment on her strength of will - almost to the point where one wants to shake them and ask them to stop doing it. Still, it doesn't change the fact that at every junction, Shirayuki has been moving her life forward. It is she who decides to try for the position of court herbalist so that she may enter the castle under her own authority; it is she who decides to live permanently in Clarines; and it is she who makes the choice to move to a far northern city in order to better her skills, despite the move taking her away from Zen for some years. In a nutshell, it's her hard work that earns her respect from those she meets.
Izana: "Right here, right now, would I ignore the words of a palace pharmacist?"
-- Chapter 35
(This quote demonstrates that neither Shirayuki's common background nor gender has any bearing on her current authority as a herbalist/pharmacist - Izana bases his trust purely on her position.)
Those closest to Shirayuki do worry about her safety, yet none of them attempt to control her life by telling her what to do. None of them try to confine her in a safe little box. When it comes to Zen and Shirayuki, Zen gives Shirayuki the usual warnings about taking care of herself but does so with the confidence that she will take his words as sentiment rather than as an order. There is never a sense that he's trying to stifle her or undermine her resolve to act.
Yet all the above doesn't mean Shirayuki has no moments of insecurity or fear. She's human like anyone else. While captured by pirates, and also caught during a possible contagion, Shirayuki demonstrates that her strength lies in being able to push through difficult times. Even when she's scared, she doesn't let that turn her into a useless mess. When held captive, she tries to escape. She never once assumes that a literal prince on a literal white steed will come to rescue her. A perfect balance is struck between independence and reliance upon friendships.
All in all, Shirayuki shows us that self-reliant women don't need to rely upon their physical appearance or connections in order to move ahead in life. It's possible to do so by impressing others with the skills you have.
(Above: Shirayuki knocking over a barrel to distract Mihaya)
My last favourite girl in this list is someone I've praised in the past. Akane shares many similarities with Shirayuki up above despite the drastically different genres of their series. Her development from uncertain rookie to tough senior is a gradual progression, one you almost don't notice until you compare her expressions and stance between the beginning and the end of Psycho-Pass. But there are key differences between her and Shirayuki.
One aspect which makes Akane stand out is that she doesn't begin as a confident woman. Unlike Shirayuki, who demonstrates her agency from the outset, Akane is cast as a new recruit who frequently worries about the choices she has made and her relationship with her co-workers. She doesn't have Shirayuki's initial self-assurance or poise. Rather, we see her very human worries as she navigates the rocky road of her new job. Akane isn't a woman who is loud, brash, imposing, or memorable in some way; she's short, young, inexperienced, and plain-looking - the opposite of what we'd expect from the image of a heroine. Too often female role models are tough fighters, which is good, don't get me wrong, except it equates assertiveness with physical toughness. Akane is still a warrior, but she's not a conventional one.
What Psycho-Pass gives us is a female protagonist whose role is (she's told) to be a handler directing those who chase after criminals. Technically she could sit safe on the sidelines and let her subordinates risk their lives, but she doesn't do this. She involves herself in cases, sometimes more deeply than her co-worker despite repeated warnings (see: memory dive to retrieve Shougo Makishima's image), and also takes the initiative of pursuing wrongdoers throughout the second season and movie. Determination is a trait which Akane develops over the course of the series, allowing us to grow alongside her as she overcomes trial after trial.
Compared to Shirayuki, whose core personality changes little over the series, Akane grows as a person. She is portrayed as a human character rather than a female one. Her gender is an incidental fact and not remarked upon once by any of her co-workers, nor is it used to levy sympathy. For those reasons and more, her character deserves admiration.
(Above, from left to right: progression from season one to season two to the movie)
All the women above show off different aspects of femininity or characterisation which make them more memorable than most: Fujiko Mine, femme fatale; Revy Two-Hands, expert gunslinger; Shirayuki, independent princess; and Akane Tsunemori, staunch enforcer of the law. Only the latter two may be protagonists of their stories, but each one of them stand out to me in my history of watching anime.
There may of course be other female characters out there I'm missing. This is not a definitive list by any means. It's worth mentioning here that Studio Ghibli has a particularly good track record of well-portrayed female protagonists. Most of us know Chihiro from Spirited Away, plus Ponyo and Arrietty and many more. I find that between them and the characters I remember best, their appeal is that they escaped being pulled from a box of tropes. None of them are obvious stereotypes or caricatures. They are simply them.
So, I'll leave you all with a challenge: Next time you pick up a series, try keeping an eye out for series capable of showing women without:
- resorting to exaggerated body features
- arranging them in a vulnerable position to the viewer or their nearest male co-star
- relying upon character tropes (e.g. the "deres")
- repeatedly placing them in a powerless position from which they need to be rescued.
See how many you can find. Perhaps start a discussion and share your thoughts on the MAL forums!