In August this year, Sophia McDougall wrote an article entitled I Hate Strong Female Characters for New Statesman. Although it may sound a tad misogynistic from the title alone, rest assured it’s hyperbolic. In the article, McDougall criticises the fact that well-rounded and frankly human female characters are often hard to find in pop-culture and that typically female audiences are appeased by giving a female love interest (to the male main character, naturally) some martial arts skills. Very often, that’s it in terms of character development and in providing female audiences with anyone to relate to. It was a really thought provoking piece and I would highly recommend reading it yourself if I have piqued your interest. More recently, when I was watching the popular anime, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I immediately remembered this article and thought to myself, “Ah, now this is how you write female characters!”
In case you aren’t in the know, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is a 2009 anime based on the manga of the same name by Hiromu Arakawa. There was another series made in 2003 that was immensely popular, but the story took quite a different direction than the manga half way through, so Brotherhood serves as a more faithful adaptation (though both are very good in their own way). A dark fantasy set in the fictional country of Amestris where alchemy is an advanced form of science, it tells the story of two brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, who commit the ultimate taboo for alchemists when they use it to try bring their mother back from the dead. In the process Ed loses and arm and a leg, Al his entire body, and following the disastrous attempt at reviving their mother, Ed quickly attaches Al’s soul to a suit of armour. Ed then becomes a state alchemist in order to gain access to military files about alchemy so that he may discover a way of getting their bodies back. He becomes known as the Fullmetal Alchemist and that’s where this exciting story begins!
As you can probably tell from the synopsis, it is essentially a show about two teenage boys on a quest to achieve some very specific goals. But it’s also so much more than that – it explores a lot of topics that I’ve never really seen dealt with in anime such as war, genocide, racism and the link between power and knowledge. It sounds kind of heavy when you put it that way, but there’s a fine balance struck between humour and darker content that seems like it wouldn’t work but it does. Also, it has great female characters, which brings me to the point of this post.
The female characters of Fullmetal Alchemist are eclectic and well-rounded. Some are certainly strong, but it by no means defines them as people. They are allowed to show weakness; to be human. At no point is it ever suggested that femininity makes you less than in anyway. This could be seen as quite an achievement (though, yeah, it shouldn’t be). In her article, McDougall discussed how male characters are never described merely just as “strong” and how generally they’re allowed to have multi-faceted personalities and traits –
No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.
The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” Sometimes the phrase “not your typical damsel in distress” will be used, as if the writing of pop culture heroines had not moved on even slightly since Disney’s Snow White and as if a goodly percentage of SFCs did not end up, in fact, needing to be rescued.
McDougall then goes on to discuss some of pop-culture’s most loved male characters – Sherlock Holmes, Captain America and James Bond. She correctly points out that nobody ever asks if Sherlock Holmes is strong, because he isn’t and that isn’t the point of his character. Sherlock Holmes has his own defining characteristics beyond needing to be merely strong. Likewise with the latter two.
The point is, female characters don’t have to be strong and they certainly shouldn’t have to know how to roundhouse kick someone in the face in order to be taken seriously by the viewer. They should be allowed to show weakness, be dull, be housewives; they should be allowed to be human. Also relevant to this discussion is something Natlie Portman said recently about stories about women in Hollywood – “The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.” Although we’re talking about anime and not western media here, it too can often be guilty of the same thing, which is probably why Fullmetal Alchemist really resonated with me. The female characters aren’t interchangeable, ass-kicking pairs of tits vying for the attention of the male lead; they’re people.
The show doesn’t fall into the trap of the “Strong Female Character”. The women in the show aren’t just there as an aside or as a means of progressing the main male characters’ story. They are all individuals; they have their own traits and desires. The viewer is invited to fall in love with them in the same way they would Ed and Al (the side-characters of this show in general are very well written). Some of them do kick ass, but not in a “shit this girl has no personality, let’s just make her super mega strong instead!” sort of way.
Before I started writing this I genuinely forgot how many great female characters there are – which is a pretty good complaint, don’t you think? In fact, there are too many to mention lest this post gets alarmingly long (it’s probably a bit too long already, FORGIVE MY SELF-INDULGENT NATURE). So, I’ll strictly be talking about my own personal favourites.
Olivier Mira Armstrong
I thought I’d start off with Olivier because she is fierce and gives me chills and it’s my list so I can do what I want. With the character of Olivier, Arakawa completely turns the notion of women always being overly-emotional, hysterical creatures on its head. She is in charge of the Briggs’ Fortress, the purpose of which is to protect the country from an invasion from neighboring Drachma. As such, Olivier cannot afford to put on airs and graces; she is blunt and rules with somewhat of an iron fist, though she is also fair and has an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong in spite of her perhaps coming across as somewhat militaristic at first. Her personality is also a stark contrast to her younger brother, Alex Louis Armstrong, a musclebound state alchemist who is a big ol’ softy.
Izumi Curtis is a great alchemist; one of the best, though you wouldn’t know it at first. She likes often refers to herself as a simple housewife, which makes it all the more amusing when those around her are flabbergasted at her immense strength. Izumi seems represent the perfect blend of the feminine and the masculine – who says you can’t be a homemaker and have amazing power?! She’s firm but caring, which is especially clear when we see her teaching Ed and Al about alchemy as young boys. Like the other female characters in the show, she has weaknesses and she has regrets which are explored in the show and which I won’t discuss here lest I spoil.
May Chang is the seventeenth princess of Xing, a country to the east of Armestris. She ends up coming to the country in order to find out the secret of immortality so that she may secure and keep the throne of her country, and bumps into Ed and Al in her travels. May is small and spunky and a talented user of Alkehestry (Xing’s version of Alchemy) to boot. Despite all that, May is still relatively young, which is exemplified by her occasional flights of fancy and her becoming besotted by the stories of the Elric brothers.
The character of Winry definitely could have fallen into the “Main Love Interest” hole where all chance of her character developing is lost simply because of her being a love interest, but Arakawa doesn’t let that happen. Winry Rockbell is an interesting character in her own right and her existence proves that you don’t need to have alchemy or some kind of military skill in order to be an important character in the series. Winry is Ed and Al’s childhood friend and neighbour. She has a close relationship with the brothers and she often provides them with emotional support as do they with her. She too knows heartbreak having lost her parents who were doctors on the frontline in the Ishbalan war; something she is confronted with during the series. Winry is also a talented and passionate engineer, and having created the automail replacements for Ed’s lost arm and leg, she spends a good deal of the series maintaining it, much to her vexation.
Riza Hawkey is lieutenant and body guard (and personal assistant, confidante… She is a lot of things to him!) to Colonel Roy Mustang, the flame alchemist. Riza is a talented sniper and has a knack for firearms in general. Her place in the series does at first appear to be defined wholly by Mustang (my otp *sigh* I mean… *Ahem*), but despite her devotion to him and his beliefs, Riza will never follow him blindly and is always first to call him out on his bullshit when it’s necessary.
I didn’t really know whether to include her or not, considering she’s dead for the entirety of the show and we only get to know her ever-so-slightly through a few flashbacks. Even so, considering she is essentially the catalyst for the events of the show, I felt she deserved a place on the list. I think Trisha could easily be dismissed as a charming and supportive little housewife, but hey, a housewife is an important job and they can’t all be powerful alchemists like Izumi Curtis. The woman was basically a single mother and managed to raise two, super intelligent alchemist sons on her own, let’s give credit where credit’s due!