Recently, I came across an interesting article that talked about the role of women in vampire literature. This, together with a recent discussion about the prevalence of 'cutesy' female characters in anime, got me thinking. Surely child-like pretty girls was not the only depiction of female folk in most anime shows? I mean, from what I remember (both from manga and anime), you are likely to come across different types of personalities in most shows. Of course, I could be turning a blind eye to flaws in my favorite shows, thus preferring to think that most shows didn't create one-sided, annoying female characters. Let's take a look, shall we?
If I were to think back to some of my favorite shows and books, I would say that most female characters fall into 4 or 5 personality types. On the plus side, all females are not eye-candy who are acting out male fantasies. But then again, it also means that the writers might not be fleshing out realistic female folk – think the way they talk, the whole nurturing angle, etc.
Let me first set up a point of comparison for the rest of the personality types. This will be the yardstick against which I will size up everyone else. This particular character type is rather typical of how folks tend to depict women. Well, it is the default female character folks fall back on when they are not in the mood to build a decent female lead or side character. Imagine a sweet, nurturing sort of girl who always thinks of other over her own needs. She just wants to be happy and may or may not have any set ambitions, goals or hobbies. On the other hand, she probably tends to a garden or has a pet or works as a volunteer for some charity or the other. More often than not, she will be the one in a questing group who insists on trekking into dangerous ground to save some poor soul or the other. Sure, that is the right thing to do but do notice that this character never comes up with the solid plan for this proposed rescue mission. Rather, she will pipe up with the 'We must do it' and wait for everyone else to formulate a plan as well as save those in danger. And if she had a super power at all, it would be something like healing folks. Or conjuring up tons of bandages. Am I the only one who ended up with Orihime Inoue after that description?
Wow, where do we go from there? Anyone new to anime in general is probably running out of the room, screaming like crazy. It's not all bad; I wanted to come up with the most generic (and wishy-washy) female character I could think of. Now that I got the mold for it, let's compare others. How do they measure up?
When I think about it along these lines, the first thing I notice is the way writers suppress one or more of these aspects so as to add to the personality. Thus, if females are seen to be nurturing or emotional in general, this particular female would be known for her cool demeanor. It's not that she is heartless or has no emotion. Rather, she is strong-willed and is great at suppressing these feelings. For some reason, this is necessary for her quest or her ambition. In most cases, it appears that she is reasonable or logical because she is in control of her emotion (Ok, so that was a 'No kidding' sort of statement there). To be fair, I should point out that a lot of male characters in anime are rather emotional fellows (Vash anyeone?) and this tactic is used by them a number of times as well. Perhaps the interesting point here is that, while men and women are shown to be emotional, folks portray a more reasonable woman as something of an anomaly? The best example I can think of for this type is Caterina Sforza from Trinity Blood.
Then there is the ambitious female character. I have to admit, in a lot of cases these characters are done rather well. In most cases, they have a balance between emotion and reason. Furthermore, they appear more certain or comfortable with who they are, presumably because they know what they want from life. True, according to some stories, there are a number of female characters whose ambitious nature are shown as an integral part of their evilness. In other words, they will not let anything stand in the way of what they want and in the end, it is implied that their ambition was their undoing. However, in anime, there are a number of female characters whose efforts towards achieving their dreams or goals have been portrayed positively. Thus, instead of nagging everyone else to save the helpless, she goes out and does it on her own. None of this living vicariously through others for this one! The perfect example for this one is Nana O from the Nana series. Compare her to the second Nana, the girl who is a bit more like the Inoue prototype I mentioned earlier.
Then there are the last two types – fighters and tomboys. Sometimes these two traits intersect in a character. More often than not, the writers do take pains in writing up a more rounded personality. I must say that in most cases this type of attention is granted to fighting types as opposed to tomboys. Like the girly-girl mold that is our basis for comparison, tomboys almost always have the same characteristics. Hence, it almost always comes across as a general stereotype of what non-girlish characters will be like. Such a character will have three or more characteristics from this list: loves sporty attire, sensible, loves sports, more likely to talk loudly or make snarky remarks … there is quite a few to this list. Just pick up a tomboy character (think Ichigo's little sister from Bleach) and compare that to other tomboys. What I noticed within this list was how much leeway was granted to such a character. Was it a girl who was just like a typical boy in every way and thus, nothing like our yardstick (i.e. Inoue). Actually Inoue's friend Tatsuki is a great example for this definition. On the other hand, sometimes writers will play around with a tomboy's personality and add a bit more color to the character. If you are looking for examples, Haruhi from Ouran High School Host Club is a good one. She strikes a balance between what folks expect from her as a girl and what she wants for herself.
Like I said earlier, female fighters also fall into the tomboy category. Most of the time, but then again it is not always the case. Sure, you get the angry and out for blood female types like Soifon and Apache from Bleach. Then again, you also come across the more level-headed fighters like Astharoshe Asran from Trinity Blood. Actually, excluding the slightly nervous Esther, most of the female fighters in Trinity Blood were impressive because they didn't belong to one particular group (i.e. tomboy, ditzy female, evil ambitious lady). Rather, each of them had varied traits that set their personalities apart from each other. And of course, you get the 'sensual female who is a hectic warrior' type. The best example for this is Yoruichi Shih?in. She is well-known for her dazzling feminine ways and looks but she contributes to the overall plot by being one of the most impressive fighters within the group.
What have I found out? Seems like my earlier argument (that women are portrayed in a variety of ways albeit according to a very limited list of traits) appears to be true. Nonetheless, it makes for interesting analysis. Perhaps we should actually be checking if the genre or target audience has any effects on how female characters are created?