Sword Art Online: Objectification and Male Power

(Content warning: this article includes depictions of molestation and domination)

Sword Art Online was easily one of the most popular and talked-about anime series of 2012. The premise of a bunch of player being trapped in an MMO video game where dying in the game meant dying in real life was enough of a hook to attract thousands of viewers. To be honest, the show lost me halfway through after wasting time discussing game minutia that wasn’t all that interesting and building a harem for the show’s protagonist, Kirito. The show has been around long enough that critics have already had enough time discuss the show’s myriad problems, so what’s the point of digging up old material? With season 2 airing this summer, now is the perfect time to discuss the worst part of season 1, which I just finished last week at the time of this writing. That would be the Alfheim Online arc, the second half of season 1.

The Alfheim arc begins with Kirito’s awakening from Sword Art Online, haven beaten the game and escaped after 2 years of virtual confinement. However, Kirito’s girlfriend and former badass warrior Asuna has yet to wake up despite Sword Art Online no longer existing. The reason for this is that her mind is trapped in a new virtual reality MMO game called Alfheim Online, which is basically just Sword Art Online with flying fairies. In Alfheim, Asuna is literally trapped in a cage by Alfheim’s gamemaster Sugou, who’s introduced in real life smelling the Asuna’s hair while she’s comatose.

This guy is quite the charmer as you can see.

This guy is quite the charmer as you can see.

This is the first sign of the major problem with this arc of Sword Art Online. I could complain about how Alfheim is somehow less interesting than SAO, or why people are still playing virtual reality MMOs after the most popular one was responsible for the deaths of many real life people, or the creepy subplot of Kirito’s newly introduced sister having a crush on Kirito, but those complaints could fill up their own articles. Instead, let’s focus on what is easily the most repulsive aspect of Sword Art Online, the depowering and objectification of Asuna.

Sword Art Online’s track record of treating its female characters like people is incredibly poor. In the first arc, every female character exists to be impressed by and fall in love with Kirito because of his impressive combat skills. Basically Sword Art Online is a typical male power fantasy in which the male protagonist that male gamers in the audience can identify with are rewarded with the idea that their video game skills will make girls love them. Basically Kirito is a bland character with no distinguishable flaws or well-rounded personality traits. But within the narrative of Sword Art Online, Kirito is unmatched by other players with the possible exception of Asuna, a player who is a high ranked member of the Knights of the Blood Oath, the most powerful player in the game. She is shown as being the most capable player in the game next to Kirito. Which makes her treatment in the Alfheim arc all the more frustrating and illustrates that no matter how capable a character she is, by being a girl she must exist only to fuel Kirito’s motivation.

So you know how gross it is that this arc opens with Asuna being molested by Sugou, who wants to marry her despite her inability to consent? Turns out that Asuna being molested and dominated is a theme of this season! Don’t forget the copious crying and struggling either! Yes, the only girl who could possibly be close to Kirito in skill level has no power anymore and only exists to make Sugou look like the worst person imaginable and Kirito look noble for avenging and rescuing her.

They made a toy depicting Asuna caged and chained. In case you weren't depressed enough already.

They made a toy depicting Asuna caged and chained. In case you weren’t depressed enough already.

The two worst examples of this occur in episodes 21 and 24. The first is an example of anime’s good old friend and internet punchline, tentacle molesting. During the one time Asuna is able to escape her cage and discovers that Sugou has captured the minds of other SAO players to experiment on, she is captured by two tentacle slug monsters that work for Sugou. During the scene the monsters tell her “stop struggling” and “I’m bored with dolls, but you look like someone I can have fun with!” Cue multiple panning shots of Asuna being grabbed and squeezed with close-up shots of her legs and exposed stomach.

Fanservice is common in Sword Art Online, but until this point it was rarely this exploitative or about dominance. Fanservice isn’t inherently bad. To see positive examples, see Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club. All though Free! is aimed at an audience attracted to men, it avoids the gross dehumanization of Sword Art Online by not being about dominance or control. Free!’s fanservice is shameless, campy, and sex-positive, while Sword Art Online’s fanservice is invasive, humorless, and controlling. Scenes like this in theory are supposed to illicit anger from the viewer at the mistreatment of a character they are supposed to like, but the direction of the scene is erotic. The camera eroticizes the act of Asuna struggling and takes advantage of the situation to showcase her exposed body to the viewer. Asuna, the second most powerful warrior of Sword Art Online, has been reduced to an object to be sexualized and humiliated.

The molestation scene in episode 24 is where the theme of Asuna being objectified to motivate Kirito is the most blatant and horrifying. Sugou chains Asuna, gropes her, and licks her face in front of a defeated Kirito. It’s all a show of dominance. Sugou shows his power over Kirito by hurting his woman. Asuna’s sexual objectification reaches its climax here, and essentially turns the Alfheim arc into a rape revenge story. Kirito gets to play the heroic avenger of his girlfriend’s assault, and not only defeats Sugou at his own game, he humiliates him by magically acquiring admin privileges and reducing Sugou’s level to 1. He emasculates Sugou and cripples Sugou’s real life body by increasing the pain felt in-game to unhealthy levels. It’s okay though, because Sugou deserved it because of his actions according to Kirito.

Gross gross gross!

Gross gross gross!

Sugou is objectively a horrible person, but he’s written specifically just to anger Kirito and take away his girlfriend. Asuna becomes just a trophy for Kirito to win back, not a character with her own feelings. The audience that’s meant to sympathize with Kirito ends up thinking of Asuna as an object as well due to the framing of the show, and the show is all too gleeful to encourage the audience to think a submissive Asuna is sexy. In a show where girls are objectified for the audience, Asuna’s objectification ends up being the worse due to both the severity of her objectification and loss of power from the first arc.

It’s important to recognize how narratives that serve to empower the male hero like this end up depowering the girls the male hero saves. Worse, the girls must be put in severe danger solely to motivate the male hero, and the male hero is entitled to love after saving the damsel in distress. That Sword Art Online chooses to use the lazy and misogynist cliché of turning Asuna into a sexual abuse victim is the final straw.

The Alfheim arc of Sword Art Online is by far one of the worst anime storylines I’ve ever seen, yet I’ll be watching Season 2 of Sword Art Online. It’s still not a good show, but morbid curiosity and the fact that Sword Art Online is still one of the most popular shows on Crunchyroll means I have to keep watching it. Season 2 also introduces a new girl for Kirito to team up with, who’s shown to be the best sniper in the MMO Gun Gale Online. So how is this character introduced?

Sigh.

Sigh.

Well, it can’t be as bad as Alfheim Online, right?

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New Contributors!

So over the next week or so, I’m planning to add some more people here. It’s simply that I’m kind of lazy and I think I might have more motivation to post if I wasn’t the only one adding content. I get wigged out by schedules on stuff I’m not being compensated for, to be honest, and yet I would really like to maintain this blog in order to publish more of my writing that isn’t related to social-justice or feminist analyses of media.

That’s a lot of what I’ll be focusing on in adding people to this blog: other people who are women, people of color, LGBT or other groups where our opinions on media tends to get pigeonholed into talking about what is sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. about it. That’s a valuable perspective, and one that you’ll definitely find plenty of on this blog, but it’s not the only one most of us have to offer. Media criticism in general needs less straight white males, not just the parts of it focusing on social justice, and it’s frustrating for those of us who have a whole range of thoughts on media to find that’s the only one people want to hear from us. We’re far more than just whatever societal oppressions we face.

The first person I’m adding is Eric McLeod, a friend of mine from “Anitwitter”. He is a history and film student who also has a strong interest in anime, but not only. Expect some of his posts, especially on recent anime series, up here soon!

I hope you enjoy his writing as much as mine, and I’ll keep updating if I add even more people!

Summer 2014 Anime: First Impressions Part 1

It’s not often that I find myself watching more anime in a winter/summer season than I am in spring/fall, but here we are! I stuck to five series in the spring: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, Mushi-shi Season 2, The World is Still BeautifulCaptain Earth and Haikyuu! (I tried Ping-Pong and found it wasn’t for me.) And yet, I find myself following a lot more in the usual drought that is anime’s summer season.

Granted, many of these are continuations of spring series; Jojo’sCaptain Earth and Haikyuu! are all soldiering on for the next several months, at least. But there were also a number of new summer series – or sequels of previous series I enjoyed – that intrigued me. Let’s look at some first impressions.

I’ll be starting with the second seasons/reboots, and get to the brand-new stuff in a future post after I have two or three episodes to discuss.

FREE! ETERNAL SUMMER: Episodes 1 and 2

Haru (right) and Sousuke, a new rival for Rin’s affections?

Like a lot of anime viewers who are attracted to men, I had a blast with Kyoto Animation’s effort last summer to even the fanservice playing field a bit. I deliciously drank up both the sexist fanboy tears over its existence, and enjoyed the hell out of its homoerotic ab monsters, as they shed their clothes and glistened with pool water. Free! is far from ground-breaking television, but it does what it’s trying to do pretty well. Its characters are simple but never feel stereotypical, and are always entertaining and fun. And its storylines may be well-trod ground for anime about school clubs, but they’re written and directed well-enough that you’re drawn in anyway. Plus, it has the top-notch visuals one expects with any KyoAni effort. Needless to say, I was more than ready for season two this year.

The first episode makes it clear this new season is a show for existing fans, with many shot-by-shot visual references to the series premiere. I still found myself enjoying it, but wondering where the show was going. Well, with this week’s episode, now we know: The series introduced two fun new characters, a cute but somewhat mysterious boy from Rin’s past named Sousuke; and departed Samezuka captain’s energetic and even more girl-crazy younger brother. The former seems to be setting up for fresh tension between Rin and Haru now that Rin’s softened a bit, and both give us reasons to care about the Samezuka team beyond merely being the Vocal Adrenaline to Iwatobi’s New Directions, if you will. (Yeah, I haven’t watched Glee in a few seasons, either.)

SAILOR MOON CRYSTAL: Episode 1

Gaze in wonder at them pretty backgrounds. Ignore that Usagi’s hair kinda looks like tentacle spaghetti.

You could say I’m a pretty dedicated Moonie. I’ve read the entire manga, seen most of the old DiC English dub and I’m now making my way through the original anime as it gets released by Viz on Hulu. I’ve even seen the infamous live-action series. (I don’t think it’s quite deserving of said infamy, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.) I’ve written endless posts for Autostraddle and now, Bitch about its feminism, and how its queer characters helped me come to terms with my own sexuality.

So you could also say I’m pretty well-prepared to review this first episode of the reboot series of Sailor Moon Crystal, and yet, in many ways that extra level of familiarity is a handicap more than a helper. I’ve seen this first episode’s story so many times, in so many forms, it’s hard to talk much about it on its own. So let’s instead talk about the presentation of this first episode, and what it indicates about the different beast this reboot might be.

Sailor Moon Crystal is a Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood type of reboot; it faithfully follows the manga plot where the original anime diverged (albeit, not as much as in FMA’s case). It’s clearly inspired by the manga’s art style in its character designs, which were my least favorite things visually about this series; they look clunky and misplaced given the modern high-quality of all the other visuals, especially the backgrounds. More interestingly, the tonal and character-focus differences between the two main versions of Sailor Moon are already clear from this first installment. As I said in the Bitch article, there’s less camp and visual gags here than in the original anime, and the music is more dramatic, replacing the sleazy jazz of the old series. Usagi is also at the center of the story, with Tuxedo Mask merely looming imposingly in the background rather than saving her as he did in the previous anime.

It’s a little less fun than the old series, but should be just as, if not more, epic in its action-adventure with the eye-popping visuals. And the darker manga plot should reward adult fans of the series as much as the silliness of the first series did. Regardless, I know I’m too much of a Moonie not to stick with this one.

SPACE DANDY SEASON 2: Episode 1

SO MANY DANDIES!

Space Dandy is a series that I’ve always wanted to love more than I do. It’s a sci-fi parody show from one of my favorite anime auteurs, Shinichiro Watanabe. Its particular brand of sci-fi parody is cut from the same cloth as others I already adore (more on that in a moment). It already has a top-notch English dub airing at the same time as the Japanese version, something I love and hope to see more of as a dub fan (especially dubs from Funimation, like this is). So why does it feel like it doesn’t always land for me? Why, sometimes, am I glued to the TV, whereas other weeks it feels more like a fun background distraction while I get some writing done? Luckily, the show is episodic enough that that doesn’t matter too much if one doesn’t grab me a particular week. It effectively reboots itself the next week just fine.

All that said, this first episode in the new season shows some pretty strong promise for the show going forward. It’s a similar idea to the Family Guy “Road to the Multiverse” episode, except, of course, good, and not loaded with tired references. This week, when Dandy contemplates switching careers (which…about time, bro), he finds out that there are versions of his crew (him, Meow and QT) in every universe with differences in occupations and species, but from the same basic molds. It leads to the kinds of zany hijinks you would expect when they get all jumbled up in each other’s worlds, and endeavor to find ways back to their proper places. It includes some references (mostly to other anime, like Attack on Titan) but the real pull of the episode is looking at how all the different versions of these characters bounce off each other, and their madcap attempts to each get back home.

Space Dandy‘s episodic parodic nature makes it seem more like an American adult animated comedy than a Japanese one, which is why I’ve always thought it should have an even bigger U.S. audience than it already does. Its brand of affectionate sci-fi parody seems more indebted to classic Futurama and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than most other anime. But it has enough wit and craziness, and memorable characters, to charm you even if you don’t get the references, to anime, sci-fi clichés or anything else. All that means it’s the best pick this season to bring in non-anime fans, and luckily, they can check in anytime they want. This strong season opener suggests that there’s never a better time than now.

Up in Part 2: Terror in Resonance, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, Love Stage and possibly more!