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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5 thoughts on “Sword Art Online: Objectification and Male Power

  1. I only just realised the toy in chains is not the character’s sister. I guess it could be worse?

    Great article.

  2. Yeah, this is all 100% accurate. SAO was skeevy from the beginning, but the Alfheim arc was really disgustingly bad. I didn’t realize they actually made toys of Asuna being chained up; I shouldn’t be surprised, but God that’s gross.

    I’m watching season 2 because…??? (TBH I really like the gorgeous background art, and my tolerance for putting up with fanservicey bullshit is pretty high.) I’m sure it will have more gross stuff in it, but after watching the Alfheim arc, the worst of it MUST be behind us, right?

  3. I can’t help but totally agree with this. SAO’s got much fewer major characters as compared to most Shonen series, and most of them are females, probably enough for Kirito to form his own harem or something. You’ve got Silica and Lizbeth and Leafa, and while they occasionally kick asses, most of the time they’d be put on one side gushing how awesome Kirito is and all. Yeah.

    ALO was one of the worst arcs there is that I’ve seen; that particular scene was absolutely outrageous. If there’s anything, though, is that Asuna at least, unlike many DiDs, did managed an attempt in escaping, and could have succeeded if not for the two assistants (she could do better in stealth, I guess).

    Considering many other anime figurines, however, that Asuna toy didn’t come out as surprising (to me, at least)…I’ve seen Leafa and Asuna and Sinon’s figurines in deliberate poses that, well, clearly offers pure fanservice, no more no less.

    Think that Season 2 would be less worse? Check out the most recent episode as of today (Ep. 13, wow). As much as I liked the concept, artworks and the anime in overall, there’s definitely something off-putting the way the series treats its female characters.

  4. Pingback: Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #7: Sword AIDS Online | Rose's Turn

  5. I loved your critique. Preach. THANK YOU. I literally couldn’t watch anymore when they killed Asuna in the first arc, and then when she didnt wake up I WAS FUCKING LIVID. Im a dude whos played MMOs his whole life and I do not understand dominance or control fetishes at all, HOW IS THAT FUN? Theres no surprise, theres no spontaneity, theres no love, its like a dog and his master. Fucking gross. When I got to the tentacle scene you described, hell even the scene where sugou is torturing asuna before that, I was just pissed off at how inconsistent the story was and more importantly how rapey it was. WHY does kirito keep all his skills and shit but asuna gets jack shit?>!?!?!?
    Besides all that, I thought the show had a lot of potential to be super funny and provide a lot of insight to why gamers get lost in virtual realities, instead its rapey bullshit and patriarchal glorification once again. Woo another anime where a male protagonist overcomes every insurmountable object by screaming louder and going through manic mental episodes consisting of flashes of images of people he loves.

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