[Discourse] “I Am Not a Doll”: Rei Ayanami, Escapism, and Objectified Images of Desire

SPOILERS: for the Evangelion franchise

Rei Ayanami. Subtitle: Even if I die, I can be replaced.

Twenty-six episodes, two movies, a yet-to-be-completed remake/sequel(?) film tetralogy, and a whole lot of fan-wank later, Neon Genesis Evangelion continues to reign as one of anime’s most lucrative, most groundbreaking, and most perplexing works. There are a million-and-one ways we can interpret Evangelion, but as you’ve probably guessed, this article will be looking at it (the original series and The End of Evangelion) from a feminist standpoint. Girls, women, and female-aligned celestial beings play central roles within the series, threading issues of motherhood, female ambition, and sexuality throughout.

The gender politics of Evangelion see the male-controlled, militarized institutions of NERV/SEELE and the fearsomely patriarchal commander Gendo Ikari vying to construct a new world order catered to their (male) desires, the process of which relies on their use of female-subjects as disposable tools for their plans. it can be said that NERV and SEELE’s goal of bringing about Human Instrumentality is a manipulation of the life-giving powers typically associated with female reproduction, hence all those allusions to Genesis and Lilith. More directly, Gendo leaves a trail of women in his wake, using Ritsuko Akagi for her mind and her body the same he did to her mother, Naoko.

At the center of this scheme is Rei Ayanami — Evangelion’s most iconic character — whose “ostensible” existence is defined as being a replaceable flesh-vessel for Lilith’s soul, a position Rei knows all too well. As the final episodes of the anime reveal, Rei is a series of clones created from Shinji’s dead mother (and Gendo’s wife) Yui Ikari. Rei was created as a tool to help Gendo initiate Third Impact and carry out his version of the Human Instrumentality Project, one which would reunite him with said dead anime wife. Hence, Rei is a “doll” who’s denied her own subjective agency in order to further the ambitions of a man who exercises complete control over her existence; in other words, she’s a constructed, fetishized image of womanhood made to serve a man’s selfish wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The irony that Rei Ayanami has become “the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade” and the best girl/moe queen of anime fans isn’t lost on me. Whether Rei was intended to be subversive criticism or just made to appeal to GAINAX’s straight male audience is a question that inevitably follows any feminist-aligned analysis of Evangelion. But considering this is Evangelion we’re talking about, we’ll likely never arrive at a single, definitive answer to Rei’s mystery. What I’m mainly interested in discussing here is the idea of Rei as an object of straight male desire, an analysis which extends beyond examining Rei through the lens of feminist film theory to include Hideaki Anno’s greater conversation with the psychological condition of the otaku audience.

Shinji falls on top of Rei.

The desiring otaku audience and the illusionary image of women

It’s fairly well-known that Hideaki Anno developed Evangelion out of a four-year long period of clinical depression wherein he “did no work and spent most of his time alone in his room.” Anno’s been clear that Evangelion is his most deeply personal work, one which reveals “his own problems of the heart” through the underlying theme of “not running away” from one’s problems. But if Evangelion is Anno’s effort to confront his dilemmas as an individual and a creator, then Rei’s character is something of an unresolved issue for him. As he stated in a 1997 interview, “Rei is probably [the character] closest to my deep psyche. I don’t really understand her. The truth is, I have no emotional attachment to her at all.”

In an interview with The Atlantic, Anno describes Rei’s popularity amongst otaku “as the product of a stunted imaginative landscape born of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War,” On the surface, this statement doesn’t seem connected to the anime and manga industries’ gender politics. However, this “stunted imaginative landscape” is said to play a key role in the social condition of otaku and the culturally unique reception of female anime characters, as observed by psychologist and media critic Tamaki Saitō, who similarly states that otaku are the result of “the interactions between the modern media environment and the adolescent psyche in Japan” (Beautiful Fighting Girl 9).

This “stunted imaginative landscape”/“adolescent psyche” can be tied to significant changes in Japanese gender roles following World War II, wherein women experienced gains in social freedoms outside of the home (particularly marriage choice) and men, who had benefited from the nation’s strongly patriarchal social order prior to the war, are said to have undergone a sort of crisis of masculinity in response to the nation’s defeat and subsequent American militarization. Combined with women’s (minor) social gains, the perceived loss of patriarchal power was felt as a national emasculation, a sentiment which can also be found in Anno’s recent Shin Godzilla.

Concurrent to these social changes was the growth of anime and manga throughout the 1970s and 1980s. For men like Anno coming of age in this era, anime and manga became a fantasy safe haven from the pressures of post-war society, which still expects greater levels of conformity and social responsibility amongst citizens (30). Otaku were thus seen as “fleeing from reality” and adulthood through their vested interest in anime and manga, hence the crossover between the otaku lifestyle with hikikomori isolationism (17). It’s this escapist tendency to “cut [themselves] off from society”  — not otaku themselves — that Anno criticizes, a perspective intricately connected to his descent into clinical depression. The Instrumentality scheme is essentially a male-fronted effort to “run away” from the pains of human reality through the construction of a wish-fulfilling fantasy world. But as End of Evangelion goes to show, the path to this utopian hivemind is ironically paved with death, abuse, and a whole lot of screaming.

So where does Rei fit into this? One of the major means of escapism amongst otaku is through the fictional images of girls and young women in Japanese media. Tamaki Saitō argues that the fixation on female characters like Rei is a psychological process of projection and possession, a reactionary phenomenon to Japan’s post-war gender roles which relieves contemporary male anxiety through the “illusion of women” as a comfort object (Otaku Sexuality 227). Because fictional images of women lack personhood (i.e., aren’t real), they are ready-made to project our own meanings and desires onto, completely dependent upon us to give them significance. In psychoanalytic terms, this “lack” of subjectivity makes her an eligible — and most importantly, a safe — object of desire. The simple logic here is that she can’t hurt us (and vice-versa) because she isn’t real. Sure, Rei may never be able to hold your hand or say “I love you,” but as a fictional character, she can be whatever we want her to be.         

A tank of Rei clones. Subtitle: These things here that look like Rei have no souls

Obviously, the projection of straight male desires onto images of women is a cross-cultural issue, the observation of which is the basis of feminist film theory. As detailed in Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, film offers men the powerful pleasure of voyeurism (scopophilia) by providing images of women that can be objectified and consumed. The oppressive power of the male gaze manifests as the association of “scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (61). The male production of the fictional female image thus sees her depicted as a “signifier” and an idealized fantasy onto which “man can live out [his] phantasies and obsessions…by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (59). Fictional or not, when girls/women are presented and perceived as objects whose meaning is dependent on straight male desire, we’re left with heavily skewed concepts and sexist depictions of girls/women that spill over into reality like toxic runoff. From a feminist perspective, the painful irony about Rei is that this is what her character partly deconstructs.

Rei Ayanami

To tie this back to the boatload of theory I’ve just laid out, Rei’s immense popularity largely owes itself to the very fact that — to borrow a phrase from Mulvey — she is “an illusion cut to the measure of desire” (66), a “silent image of a woman” whom others can project onto. Justin Wu argues that Rei’s reserved personality “gives fans plenty rooms of imagination on what she really thinks and feels.” Much of what we associate Rei’s character with is purely visual in nature; she’s a girl of few words and even fewer expressions (even a smile is foreign to her), lacking the charismatic catchphrases and quirky verbal tics of her female peers. Her earliest scenes in the anime orient around her bodily presence and the reactions of those confronted by her image — her bleeding, broken body inspires Shinji to get in the robot (insert booing here) and in Episode 5, we have Shinji walking in on a conspicuously nude Rei, who responds in what can only be described as total indifference:  

Rei, naked. Subtitle: Do you mind moving?

It’s easy to dismiss these scenes as mere fan service, but Rei’s presentation as a visual spectacle to fellow characters and the audience is ultimately tied to the limitations of her existence as a receptacle for male desire. Her aesthetical appearance invites the fetishistic male gaze, as remarked upon by lead character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto; “Her character was locked in as translucent — like a shadow, or the air. The kind of girl you can’t touch. The girl you long for, but there is nothing about her that you can hold.” Of course, the reason why she’s so markedly different owes itself to the inorganic origins of her creation. As Sadamoto’s comment suggests, Rei’s pale complexion, shock of blue hair, and blood-red eyes aren’t just meant to draw our gaze — they’re meant to signify her fleeting nature as a clone. And what else is a clone other than a living, breathing replicated image?

Rei’s existence as an image and a body that’s denied human autonomy is expressed through the fragility of her form. It’s suggested throughout the series that there’s something physically (never mind mentally, and I suggest this analysis on her psychology) wrong with Rei, emphasized through shots of mysterious pill packs and bloodied bandages. From what we can assume, Rei’s health problems are a result of the cloning process — i.e. the fact that she’s an “image” and not an organic person. She lacks a natural female biology, particularly a menstrual cycle (“a woman who never bleeds”) [Editor’s note: please see some important discussion about this line in the comments], and the disconnect between Rei’s biological age (14) and her chronological age (10, as Episode 21 suggests) implies that Gendo has some control over manipulating her growth. As a result of all this biological intervention, by the time we get to End of Evangelion, Rei’s body is literally falling apart, her corporeal image collapsing just as her meaningfulness to Gendo is about to end. With the amount of control Gendo holds over Rei’s autonomy, it’s fair to say that their relationship resembles the dynamic between the desiring male creator/spectator and the female image he projects his fantasies onto.

As previously mentioned, Gendo’s efforts to orchestrate Instrumentality are carried out through his subjugation of various female-aligned subjects, from his manipulation of Rei to his underhanded affairs with the Akagis. Now, I won’t argue with the notion that Gendo is a bastard more than worthy of his fate, and I’ll even go as far as to say he’s an infinitely WORSE anime dad than Shou “My Science Project is My Daughter and Her Dog” Tucker. However, beneath Gendo’s controlling gaze — the oppressive power of which is symbolized through, what else, his glasses — is a man trying to “run away” from his anxieties and traumas by constructing a new, wish-fulfilling reality. As he lays dying in End of Evangelion, it’s revealed that he too is terrified of the “invisible bonds” people form, admitting that his neglect of Shinji stems from his own self-loathing and fear of being hurt by others.

Rei and Shinji. Subtitle: I'm sorry. I don't know what to do at a time like this.

I’d hesitate to make any direct comparison between Gendo and the prototypical male otaku fan/creator (you can take Gendo’s uncanny resemblance to Anno as you will), but it can be said that to Gendo, Rei is a comfort object cloned in the image of what he ultimately desires — his wife. Along with being the linchpin in Gendo’s plans, Rei acts as a receptacle for his emotions; we only ever see Gendo drop his steely facade and show anything resembling empathy around Rei. She replaces the familial voids left by Yui and the son he pushed away, and because Rei’s more “image” than “human,” Gendo can project onto her all he wants without fear of being hurt. And as Rei’s creator, he assigns her existence a meaning that’s entirely dependent upon his desires, like all those horrible manic pixie dream girls.  

So when the moment comes for Rei to finally initiate Gendo’s version of Instrumentality, what does she do? She rejects him, stating, “I am not a puppet.” The core of Rei’s character development is her progressive realization that she has a right to her own existence (“Because I am not you”); she’s not just some pretty image or a doll to be manipulated, but a living, breathing individual who’s been isolated, abused, and confined to a bleak room like a madwoman in the attic all her life. Anno notes that Rei’s supposed passivity and willingness to sacrifice herself are not solely sourced in her having “the barest minimum of what she needs to have” (a body and consciousness), but in the acute awareness that she’s a clone, that “even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly.”     

Rei was never happy with the fact that her existence depended on how useful she was to Gendo, because living as the “bearer of meaning” and the signifying object of desire essentially means being nothing in and of itself. To be an image of desire is to be the recipient of, as qmisato on Tumblr observes, an “objectifying love instead of a humanizing love,” entirely dependent upon another’s wants and without a subjective existence of their own. And yet the ultimate tragedy of Rei is that, with her ascent to godhood in End of Evangelion, she becomes the “bearer of meaning” for all of humanity, reduced to a ghostly spectre with no ability to exist on her own terms. Similarly, this reflects Rei’s status as an anime icon in the real world, doomed to an eternity as sexy figurines, body pillows, and wall scrolls.

Intentional or not, Rei holds a mirror to the escapist projection of straight male anxiety onto idealized images of girls and women. However, this is a large, complex and much contested topic, and has been for decades now, meriting further discussion. 

 

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

Not sure where to start? Some questions to kick-start conversation:

  • Do you agree with this assessment of what Rei’s role reflects about straight male otaku culture?
  • Are you a woman who has identified with Rei as more than just an object of desire?
  • Are you a queer otaku who has noticed a difference in the way you relate to Rei compared to how straight male otaku peers relate to Rei?
  • How would you apply this analysis to Kaworu, who Anno has stated represents an “idealized version of Shinji”?
  • The name “Rei” in Japanese means “zero,” and the number zero is continuously associated with Rei throughout the series (Unit 00). How does the idea of Rei as an image of desire relate to the symbolism of “zero,” or nothingness?  

 

Works cited:

Mulvey, Laura. (1975) 2012. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16 (3): 6-18. Reprinted in The Gender and Media Reader, edited by Mary Celeste Kearney, 59-66. New York: Routledge.

Tamaki, Saitō. (2000) 2011. Beautiful Fighting Girl. Translated by J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tamaki, Saitō. (2007). “Otaku Sexuality.” In Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Ronay-Csicsery Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi, translated by Christopher Bolton, introduction by Kotani Mari, 222-249. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 

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  • Brainchild129

    It’d be interesting to connect the idea of Rei being an empty vessel upon which other can project their desires to her manga iterations. While some of do strive to stick close to her canon personality (such as Sadamoto’s own manga), others like The Shinji Ikari Raising Project and Angelic Days give her a complete personality transplant.
    To some degree, it could be said that the mangaka (and the devs, since both are technically game adaptations) are projecting their own desires on her, although in that case it’s their desire for a sunny, even ditzy foil to Asuka (although she too is usually toned down and simplified to make her more palatable). It’s sad when the gag manga have a better grip on Rei as a character than these works do.

    • baptisms

      This is going to sound bad of me as a self-proclaimed Evangelion expert, but I…haven’t read…the spin-off mangas…and kind skimmed the official manga…BUT I’m familiar with how starkly different Sadamoto’s manga is story and character-wise (aka Karl). If anyone here is more familiar with the manga and can point to any particular instances where manga!Rei is different from anime!Rei please feel free to leave your comment below.

      • Brainchild129

        I can’t blame you. Sadamoto’s manga underwent so many hiatuses that a lot of people didn’t follow it until the end. Meanwhile, SIRP and Angelic Days were so boring that I could have torn my hair out (to say nothing of how turning Evangelion into yet another high school romance denies Evangelion pretty much everything that makes it unique. Also, Angelic Day’s art is HIDEOUS).
        Campus Apocalypse is probably the best of the serious spin-offs (even if its interpretations of the Angels is rather on-the-nose). As for the gag ones, I would recommend either The Shinji Ikari Detective Diary or Tony Takezaki’s one-shot gag volume.

  • Blusocket

    This is a great piece, I really appreciate the thorough examination of Rei’s character/character arc and the uncomfortable (to say the least) irony of her reception by fans. It’s so fascinating that Anno describes her as the character most like his “deep psyche”–the person he was while he was depressed. I can’t say for sure how Anno experienced depression (both because I don’t know Anno personally and because depression tends to look and feel different in every culture), of course, but feelings of emptiness and worthlessness are very common symptoms and are very prevalent themes in Rei’s arc. Her association with the number zero, her limited affect, even her existence as a clone (a placeholder–more zeros!) and the culmination of her arc in claiming her existence as her own, all resonate with what I’ve seen of depression among my friends, as well as my own (thankfully brief) experiences.

    That said, this sentence really bothered me. “She lacks a natural female biology, particularly a menstrual cycle (‘a woman who never bleeds’)….” Putting the words “natural,” “biological,” and “female” together in a sentence is pretty squirrely–trans women on HRT can experience PMS symptoms cyclically (surprising, but true: http://bit.ly/2lwCaMK) but framing menstruation as a natural, quintessential aspect of female embodiment is an oversimplification that too easily slips into essentialism and alienates trans women. I do think it’s narratively significant that Rei doesn’t menstruate, and appreciate Natalie pointing out that detail–as she said, there are frequent allusions to birth, pregnancy, and the womb that run throughout Eva, and this is related to how the series portrays women in general and Rei in particular. Still, I feel like discussing these references and allusions warrants a lot of caution in order to avoid discussing “biological reality” when we need to be discussing narrative framing and coding–artistic decisions meant to evoke the idea of womanhood, but which do not and cannot reflect all of womanhood–whether these decisions and their impacts are simply specific or actively/effectively exclusionary. Thanks again for such a thought-provoking piece!

    • baptisms

      H! Nicole here! First, thank you so much for reading this: I’m endlessly proud to make my debut on Anime Feminist with Evangelion, and I’m really excited to see how subsequent discussion plays out on Rei and the more gendered meanings to be found in Evangelion. I had a lot of thoughts going into this piece, because Eva is just one of those things that gives you DEEP thoughts, and I always find myself returning to Evangelion as a text that I can consistently find new meanings and interpretations in.

      But to respond to your comment, yes, totally agree with your critique, and I did drop the ball on that one. I did, admittedly, have a bit of trouble finding a way to phrase the point about Rei not being capable of menstruating (which now that I type that, I’m kicking myself for not using those set of words instead), its narrative significance, and how that’s connected to her not being “real”. I foresaw this phrasing as carrying some exclusivity to trans women and their experiences, and I absolutely apologize for further perpetuating the notion that vagina/uterus/menstruation = woman.

      Also I love the way you phrased this point, “we need to be discussing narrative framing and coding–artistic decisions meant to evoke the idea of womanhood, but which do not and cannot reflect all of womanhood,” as I think it really gets to the point of how to frame interpretations and analysis in a more inclusive way. I’m just gonna adopt that into my own little thought-catalog for future reference,

      Anyways, thanks again for your comment, and I do hope this comment thread become a springboard for discussion on Rei and notions of “authentic” female identity. I’ve come across quite a few head canons that build off the narrative significance of Rei being unable to menstruate to interpret Rei as trans or gender nonconforming. Of course, as a cis woman, I can’t speak to these experience or the importance of such head canons/representation, but I do think it’s more than worthy of discussing.

    • Thank you so much for this comment! I’m going to edit the post to point people in this direction.

  • Amy Notdorft

    Great piece! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Evangelion series (I don’t think I stuck around for any of the films), but I remember my frustration with the treatment of its female characters. This was a while before I really understood feminism and was completely inexperienced in any kind of feminist analysis… so all I knew was that a painful and familiar nerve was being struck and it made me uncomfortable. Reading your essay makes me want to re-watch the series with a critical eye instead of a purely emotional one.

    While reading your description of Rei’s role as an otaku icon I couldn’t help but be reminded of the somewhat similar role of Princess Leia here in the West. Though she arguably possesses more agency, it’s interesting that the popular “pin-up” images of her pandered to the straight-male gaze are those where she wears the “slave” costume — captured in a moment where she is stripped of agency and wearing an outfit donned against her will. Not to say otaku and sci-fi fans are completely analogous, but I think it’s fair to say they are both often depicted as straight males and are criticized for their interests, often in ways that question their masculinity. Again, Leia seems to be a “bearer of meaning” (she gives Luke his first “quest” and literally gives the boys medals at the end) even if she has moments of agency.

    There are some other comparisons to be made in gaming culture too and I wonder what gives a particular objectified icon, like Rei or maybe Leia, staying power in her medium. Is it because she perfectly personified that role they desired her to fulfill? Or is it that Evangelion (or Star Wars) was just a popular/ groundbreaking piece and people think of her as “original” or “classic”? If we stop portraying women as motivators instead of actual actors will we see less objectification within fandoms? And can the portrayal of male characters perhaps help to alleviate the need some straight male fans feel to seek comfort in female characters? (How male characters fit into typical gender roles and how they interact with other characters for instance).

    • baptisms

      God I miss Carrie Fisher so much. I came across a photoset of her giving a documentary crew a tour of her house and it was filled with really eccentric and quirky oddities and my heart just SUNK thinking about how we’re supposed to live without her earthly presence.

      But just off the top of my head, there’s a ton of connections to be made between Eva and Star Wars. Both series are structured off of the Oedipal dynamic, and both provide commentaries on oppressive patriarchal regimes/structures. I think there’s definitely some similarity in the way male fans have received Leia with Rei, but I think what makes Rei a better symbol as an object of desire is in the fact that she’s animated. Sure, she has voice actresses, but Leia was the voice AND image of Carrie Fisher, so on some level, you’re still dealing with a “real” person under the character. With anime and animated characters, their fictionality is the key component to why they’re so easily objectionable and open to projection. It’s easier to separate them from our concept of humanity because, obviously, they’re not human. It’s easier on a mental level to objectify something that’s depicted as being less human, hence “dehumanization”.

      Side note/shameless plug: I’m actually going to have (yet another) psychoanalytic/feminist article published in the upcoming sci-fi dossier of Film Matters Magazine about The Force Awakens, so I’ve had quite a bit of time invested in Star Wars discourse.

  • JohnClark

    “It can be said that NERV and SEELE’s goal of bringing about Human Instrumentality is a manipulation of the life-giving powers typically associated with female reproduction”

    Reaction: “Yoooooooooo, that’s so true, especially given the fact that each Eva was produced using DNA from the designated pilot’s mother.” I actually did say “Yoooooooo” when I saw that.

    “Reunite him with said dead anime wife”

    Reaction: Yeah, Gendo really needs to get out more. Y’know, like maybe go out and play catch with his son (without the fate of the world hanging in the balance).

    “She’s a constructed, fetishized image of womanhood made to serve a man’s selfish wish-fulfillment fantasy.”

    Dear God, Gendo is literally anime’s biggest problem.

    Then, for the rest of the article, I was basically just going, “Yooooooo” over and over.

  • MementoMorie

    This is a great article! I do love Rei as a character. As a woman I agree totally agree that she’s most often idealized by otaku culture as the perfect blank slate girl, but I can also see myself in that experience and feeling objectified or like someone is seeing me for what they want and not who I am. The empathy has made me feel very defensive of Rei as a character, because I think all of the leads have something insightful to say about experiences of anxiety and depression.

    The period thing has always been interesting about her, and I saw it as a way to directly contrast Asuka, who complains about having hers and says it’s unfair because she doesn’t want children. Meanwhile, Rei, the girl who Shinji first tried to idealize in a mothering role, can’t physically become pregnant. More generally, I’ve noticed that scenes of violence against Rei’s physical body are portrayed as attractive or something to spark a protective urge in contrast to Asuka, whose physical deterioration during depression isn’t idealized or sexualized at all. I think perhaps Asuka was supposed to come off as a messy, visceral counterpart to Rei – an undeniably flawed girl, but sadly her legacy has mostly been boiled down to “badass tsundere” (different rant for a different day).

    Ah, Kaworu. I can see him being an ideal Shinji easily – someone who has no trouble opening up and trying to make connections, less physical inhibitions. I’ve always sort of read his role in the original series as showing Shinji that perfect, easy love and connection are unrealistic expectations. Kaworu offers him unconditional love and understanding with no effort from him, while Shinji often shirks away from the rockier, but meaningful connections he’s built in people like Misato or Asuka.

    The Sadamoto manga Kaworu is REALLY interesting. He really smashes the usual image of Kaworu and turns him into a tempestuous but vulnerable jerk and it ends up being IMO the best exploration of the romantic and sexual tension between him and Shinji.

  • Elena M. Aponte

    This is a great article! I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see your use of Laura Mulvey and Tamaki Saito! For something as psycho-sexual as Evangelion, it’s great to see some psychoanalysis used to talk about it. 🙂

    I really liked how you narrowed things toward the end, particularly with an implication that Rei is forever trapped as the image of someone’s waifu in spite of everything. I totally agree with your analysis of her characterization being used to put a mirror to the otaku culture itself (and oh boy does Tamaki use Lacan to talk about that mirror haha) and I think for those who want to dismiss the validity of feminist analysis to anime really showcases how this analysis is relevant and accurate. It makes sense some fans or even scholars would get shifty about feminist analysis for Evangelion because it touches on some very personal biases even they might not be aware of. I think you did a great job exploring that!

    I’m also curious to see some analysis/ thoughts about the hospital/hand sequence that is now curiously a meme. I wonder how this also fits into the overall conversation about Evangelion, feminism, and otaku culture.

    • baptisms

      WARNING: LONG-WINDED COMMENT AHEAD

      In the idea/pitching stages of this article, I actually wanted to include some sort of analysis on THAT scene, simply because it is so important and relevant to the points I make here. As someone who got into Eva before properly entering feminist consciousness, I understand why the scene has become so meme-worthy: it seems to come out of nowhere (it’s objectively considered EoE’s Big Lipped Alligator moment http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BigLippedAlligatorMoment), and of course, there’s inevitable juvenile humor to be found in any depiction of masturbation. I also think it has a lot to do with the shock factor. Before I finished the series, a friend of mine mentioned that this scene happens in the movie, and I was like, “lol what???” because it just sounded SO outrageous out of context.

      I’ve thought a lot about this scene and its place in both EoE and the series itself, because Anno is very deliberate about the details in Evangelion, especially when it comes to the choices characters make. From my own understanding of this scene, it’s meant to show how utterly broken Shinji has become. Keep in mind the context of this scene: EoE takes place the day after Kaworu’s death, and there’s this shot (http://www.ravnaandtines.com/eva/headwash.jpg) prior to the hospital scene that implies that Shinji attempted to drown himself in the river where he first met Kaworu (aka commit suicide) because he’s JUST KILLED THE ONLY PERSON WHO COULD GIVE HIM UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. So with Kaworu dead, Misato emotionally MIA due to mourning Kaji, and Rei III being, well, a clone, Shinji has no one to turn to – except for Asuka. I could talk for ages about the dynamic between Shinji and Asuka, because I think as problematic as their relationship is, they do have a deep understanding of each other underneath it all; they’re two sides of the same coin, and in the end, Shinji wished for HER to come back with him despite all the pain they’ve caused each other.

      Shinji visits Asuka in the hospital and begs her to wake up because he has nobody else to turn to, something which is discussed later in the Hell Kitchen scene. He’s completely broken. Kaworu’s death was very much the last straw for him, and you could only imagine how traumatic something like this was for him. But because Asuka is catatonic and can’t respond, she can’t offer him a semblance of the comfort he’s begging for. She can’t even yell at him or call him “stupid”. She is reduced to an image, or, worse yet, a doll. This is where I think my reading of Rei as holding a mirror to the psychological-state and unhealthy sexual catharsis of otakus is also applicable, because Shinji is masturbating to an “image” of Asuka in this one-sided, totally nonconsensual way. (I’m also heavily reminded of the video for ME!ME!ME! and its obvious connections to Anno and Eva.) I mostly agree with similar readings of this scene as commentary on otaku culture, but I don’t think it’s Anno’s “fuck you” to otakus, because we’re still meant to have sympathy for Shinji.

      While I in no way excuse Shinji’s actions (because it is, as Asuka says at the end of the movie, “disgusting,” i.e. sexual assault), we have been shown that Shinji is not in the right state of mind. He’s become so lonely and emotionally isolated that I think he turns to this sexual urge as a fucked-up way of trying to get the emotional comfort he needs (much the same way male anxiety alleviates itself through objectifying images of women for sexual gratification). The thing that I don’t think is emphasized enough in discussions of this scene is that Shinji’s actions aren’t condoned; he immediately recognizes that what he’s done is horrible, and Asuka calls him out on in during Instrumentality (not to mention in the final scene).

      To summarize, yes, I think this scene can be read in much the same way that I analyzed Rei here, but I think the primary purpose of it narrative-wise is to show how completely broken Shinji has become, and it’s this broken mentality that sets him up to say “fuck humanity” and initiate Third Impact. It’s really tragic. I also think there’s a conversation to be had about how Shinji is a victim of patriarchal authority (aka his awful terrible neglectful abusive father), and how the trauma of toxic masculinity primes him to become an agent of patriarchal oppression (as enacted in this scene).

      This scene is still a huge source of debate among Eva fans, and it carries a lot of nuance. It does leave a bitter taste in my mouth, especially as someone who has experienced mental illness and sexual assault. I’m really interested in having a big feminist discussion on this scene, because it’s just so ripe for analysis.

      • Elena M. Aponte

        Thank you for reply! I really appreciate your analysis here. I can absolutely see how people are conflicted over this scene and I think you did a great job explaining your thought process and analysis about it! 🙂

  • baptisms

    While I read this interpretation of Rei through a feminist lens, I think her problem is very universal and identifiable for audiences. We’ve all striven to be accepted by people, and our human urge to be connected to others and understood opens us up to being hurt, hence the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. But I think it’s also very profound for LGBTQ fans because social, cultural, and political circumstances often make “fitting in” a matter of life or death. I’m straight, so I can’t speak to the experiences of LGBTQ folks, but I’ve found that Rei is really popular with my LGBTQ Eva-fan buds. She’s identifiable and easy to connect with for the reasons you mentioned. Rei definitely holds a lot of LGBTQ-political potential in my opinion.

    • Elf Princess

      That is really interesting, because to me, as a cis and heterosexual woman, Rei is especially important because she shares my fate, and the fate of every woman ever in a patriarchal world. Either you are the dream girl or you are nothing.
      That doesn’t mean that LGBTQ fans emotional bonds and interpretations are less valid; I just think that so much of what Rei’s importance is tied to her being trapped in a feminine body and being forcibly dependent for men. Then again, I can see her eventual rebellion against wishes of her creator being really resonant with LQBTQ fans, not to mention inspiring.

      Thank you for writing this piece, it’s everything I ever wanted to say about Rei, but couldn’t.

  • Lori P

    Late for the comment-party but man I love analytical posts like this!! Please bring on some more..!

  • Moni

    I think it says a lot about the presumably hetero male fans who do sexualize her and do all the “waifu, best girl” shtick with Rei. Rei is a blank slate of a character and can be interpreted as submissive, I agree with how her ultimate fate to godhood is in of itself a critique of her commodification as even when she becomes powerful she’s still defined by what other think of her as and not her own identity.

  • As a male, this is what I learned from evangelion about feminism (I don’t believe that Anno intention was to talk about this argument, but as the writer of this article clever describe, this thematic is become part of the story and reading my post you will understand why I think that this should be inevitable).

    I will keep it synthetic, to not be boring, at the risk of over simplify. Before evangelion I was not very interested in feminist thematic: I looked at it just as a game about power, women are trying to get more power, luckily form me I was on the winning side of this war… so why I do have to bother? (consider that I was just 15…)

    Reducing at his minimal term, Evangelion told us that depression and anxiety cannot be overcome by surrender to the temptation of isolate our self from the world. We live in the world and we must care of what happens to the other, specially to the ones we loves. And the female are the Other for excellence for a male (they lived on the other side of the ocean if I remember kaji words).

    So the question is simple: I cannot be happy if I will consider other just as projection of myself and not for what they are and for what they want, and this is is especially true for woman, which are so easy to transform in object in the male fantasy.

    Now feminism is not more only a women problem for me: it’s is something that is important for myself, if I will reduce women to just a desire object or an angelic figure needing my protection or any other form of reduction related to chauvinism behave, I’m reducing a part of me.

    As I state before this is an over simplified version of a long, and still not concluded process, to free myself from chauvinism. Evangelion just kick-started this thought a long time ago whit the “I’m not your doll” line.

  • Patrick de Menezes

    What an amazing text. Thank you sou much!

  • Ganondox

    I always noticed the irony in Rei’s reception, but for different reasons as I came at from the angle of autism in media rather than from feminism. What it showed is that autistic traits which were added to make a character appear creepy instead made her more endearing, and it paved way for more female characters with autistic traits in the future. This is not entirely a good thing because of the amount of objectification in anime, but could lead to better characterization in the future.